Joanne Cleaver was tired of seeing employees getting stuck on the career ladder, unable to move up and unwilling to fall behind. In her new book, "The Career Lattice: Combat Brain Drain, Improve Company Culture and Attract Top Talent," the business journalist and consultant suggests what she thinks is a better way: a jungle gym-like paradigm that encourages lateral moves.
The lattice is a more democratic vehicle for success, Cleaver argues, and ultimately a more hopeful one because it allows employees to harness the skills and experience they already have into new opportunities. Cleaver recommends moving up by moving over, in effect.
FINS caught up with Cleaver to talk about why she thinks there should be a new L-word in town.
Julie Steinberg: In your book, you detail how the term "career lattice" emerged in 1975.
Joanne Cleaver: It was for teachers so they could identify ways of moving up while teaching. Few adults have the freedom to stop in their tracks and completely reorient their networks and plunge into something completely new. For most of us, we have to pay the mortgage. The notion of the lattice was to enable people to continually evolve their skills so they were qualified for any number of career directions. That idea gained a lot of steam in education.
JS: What exactly is the career lattice?
JC: The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a nonprofit workplace training consulting firm in Chicago, works with industries to do big scale career pathing, They latched onto the term for the health care professions. If you've got people who are comfortable in a health care workplace, how can they continue to grow? How can they identify the right skills to gain so they don't end up in a dead end?
The lattice helps bridge the people without jobs and jobs without people. You identify the experiences you've had so you can package them with your technical and creative problem-solving skills,. You take what your employer thinks they know about you, combine that with what you know you're good at, and remix that so you can qualify for a job adjacent for a job you have now.
It's a lot more stable. You're not giving up the job you have now. You're able to explore several different options and move gradually and qualify yourself for jobs that may not exist today. Six years ago none of us had a heard of social media manager. Now you have tons of people who propel into that from traditional marketing routes.
JS: Why did you write the book now?
JC: We saw this trend bubbling up. Latticing seems to resonate best because it's such a perfect contrast to the ladder. It carries with it the assumption of movement. Everyone knows they have to continually grow and gain skills to make them marketable. This is the message people want to hear.
Many people have found their ways blocked because they invested in credentials that didn't end up translating into a real career path. It's important to gain the actual skill of setting your own career path and take on qualifications that make sense. You need to identify your own growth opportunities and move toward them so you don't get stuck waiting for direction to come from your employer. People want a fresh message and continued economic and career growth.
JS: So you want the lattice to replace the ladder.
JC: I'd love to see the lattice usurp the ladder. The ladder method is pretty broken. It's not a very inspiring view. We don't want to keep perpetrating a very narrowly defined career path that works for a handful of people. If you're trying to instill in your workforce being nimble and responsible and the skill of responding quickly, none of that squares with the ladder. The lattice isn't about plateauing; it's about continually growing and going up by going over.
JS: Can latticing be done at all ages?
JC: I think it should be. We know that millenials are going to have to have a work ethic like no other because of their debt load. They invest in peer relationships differently than prior generations. The lattice is very much dependent on having a strong peer network because you need people to mentor you informally and pull you into extemporaneous opportunities. Maybe you're in tech and you realize you're terrified of talking in front of a group. So you've got someone you met through a project and you call them up and ask for some tips. Millenials realize there's no shame in asking for help.
The lattice is a fresh way to look at baby boomers. Nobody wants to feel like they've got a target on their back, but companies at the same time need to open up upward mobility for Gen Xers. The lattice draws on the experience you have and new ways to apply it. That's a reassuring message for boomers. They can become internal consultants. There are lot of ways for them to have final phases of their careers that will open up paths for younger people.
JS: How do you ask for a lateral move?
JC: You need to inventory your job skills and catalog things that you're good at. Consider your experiences. If you need operations experience and you've run a major nonprofit event, that's pretty close. Then ask for the opportunity to work on a new project in this area.
You can say to your boss: "I'm pretty good working with developers, maybe I could take a course in XYZ."
You need to assess what your employer is investing in and what direction the company is headed in. Follow what analysts say about your company, where it's growing and where the opportunities are.
JS: Is it becoming more important for people to have experience in many business lines in order to get to the top?
JC: Fast-track lateral rotations have always been a part of people getting to the C-suite. But everyone should have the opportunities that have been available to only to a few who were deliberately cycled through lateral assignments.
What about the folks who don't aspire to the C-suite? What about the folks who for some reason find themselves in a slow-growth industry? What about industries where the C-level is largely occupied by fairly young people? Tech companies have a lot of young leadership talent. You've got to find some additional ways to find career satisfaction and development. The ladder is up or out and a very selective, very narrow definition of success.
Write to Julie Steinberg at firstname.lastname@example.org