Corporate Environment: Ladders, Pyramids, or One Big Pond?

I came across this list in Forbes and really like it a lot. It matches my experience very well and has got me thinking.

First, the list: Forbes's 10 Reasons Successful People Change Jobs

Now for my thoughts, building off the list from Forbes.

The list closely represents my experience.

From 2009 to 2015, I doubled and then tripled my salary and gained a host of marketable skills and even some expertise by changing jobs enough to raise the eyebrows of every stability-minded person who knows and loves me. During those years, I had four full-time employers and also spent time freelancing. Grandmaternal eyebrow-raising has definitely accompanied my journey.

Here's the thing. If you see a career as climbing a corporate ladder, you may be making a mistake. Corporations aren't really ladders with a single path and a line of people all steadily advancing each in their turn. Really, corporations are more like pyramids with lots of workers, fewer middle managers, even fewer executives, and a single owner or board or CEO or whoever sits atop the whole thing at your company. And the point is that unless the corporation is growing rapidly, someone usually has to die, retire, or leave for a job above you for the position to open up. Taking for granting that the only way to advance your career is to climb the pyramid implies that you only go forward by growing from doing work to managing people who do work. That's not true.

I don't just see the corporation where I work. I see the whole labor market for my industry, my profession, and for related industries and professions. I see them all as forming a big pond with lilypads and stones and islands. I step from rock to shallow spot as useful or necessary and I always have all kinds of directions open to me. More more stability-minded friends are amazed or amused, but it doesn't even give pause to the recruiters who track me down on a regular basis asking if I'd like to make a change. (I love my current employer, am learning tons, and have lots so of potential for career growth without shifting jobs, so I'm probably not looking to shift at the moment, but you can always ask.)

As for changing positions frequently:

  • Employers big and small lay off employees when they cannot afford to pay for or have no use for the employees' work anymore. It makes sense for employees to change employers when we have no use for or can do better than the employer's work.

  • Employers big and small lay off employees regularly when they think they can find someone to do the same work for less. It makes sense for workers to leave employers when we think we can get paid more to do the same work elsewhere.

  • Employers big or small eventually sack employees who are fractious and unpleasant to work with. It makes sense to leave a toxic employer rather than suck it up.

Incidentally, it's a false feeling that large employers provide more stability than small ones, even if stability's your thing. Large companies buy out, get bought out, go bankrupt, lay off workers to keep up the bottom line, and all the rest of it, all the time.

It's a relatively simple thing: sometimes you really have learned all you are going to learn at a job. Sometimes you really can get more money for the same work, and you know because you see the job listings or because recruiters approach you and tell you. Sometimes you find yourself working three months in a toxic environment and the idea of "sticking it out" for another three or four years (so you look stable) is miserable. To me, these are all signs that it's time to split. Split gracefully, by all means, burning no bridges if can be managed, and waiting until something better is lined up if at all possible. But still: go.

Valuing stability is fine. Stable communities are good, and stability in family life is key. I have a few friends that have been my friends for thirty or more years. But if you make stability paramount in your career, though, don't be surprised if you stagnate in your career. Stagnation is what happens when living things become too stable.

In some professions, like teaching, in which stability really is valued and there isn't really a career ladder or pyramid or whatever if you want to continue teaching, my experience probably doesn't match up well with yours. But in my industry (software development) and in others that value dynamism, like defense industries, finance, marketing, creative/design work, and more, I think you probably find many experiences that corroborate mine.

Just my $0.02, for what it's worth, though I have to admit that I'm glad Mr. Forbes agrees with me. He seems to have done OK.