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Climbing the Career Lattice: The New Way We’re Achieving at Work

I’ve gotten quite a kick out of watching the HBO series Entourage. The main characters include a young, hot actor who’ climbing his way to Hollywood stardom and his best friends, all of whom are finanically and socially supported by the actor in exchange for their undying loyalty.

I’ve gotten quite a kick out of watching the HBO series Entourage. The main characters include a young, hot actor who’ climbing his way to Hollywood stardom and his best friends, all of whom are finanically and socially supported by the actor in exchange for their undying loyalty.

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The brilliance of Entourage is that it provides a telling illustration of the underlying culture, values, pecking order, and definitions of success behind a unique society. In this world, expensive cars and multi-million-dollar pay is a given. Expensive artwork, lavish fetes, and $2,000 courtside tickets to Lakers games are mere writeoffs–costs of doing business.

I’m sure that many enjoy the show because they marvel at the extravagance of it all. I marvel at it for very different reasons: I think, “If this is what it means to be successful in Hollywood, thank goodness I’m not an actor.”

Aside from money and fame, think of all of the other “perks” that stardom entails: constant partying and Paparazzi. If I were that famous, I couldn’t grab a latte or board a plane without someone critiquing my outfit, perhaps even putting me on the cover of People’s Worst Dressed issue. I would be expected to have my hair and nails done at all times. I would be pressured to fit into dresses two sizes too small. My relationships would suffer because I had “yes” people and hangers-on as my companions. I would likely not know how to hold down a significant relationship because I wouldn’t value someone with stability and reason, but rather someone who could boost my Q rating.

And my definition of success might be determined by my agent, as it is often the case in . As an actor, I may want to film a cool Indie flick, but my representation–the people who really call the shots–will tell me that I need to do a blockbuster first, or a vapid comedy, or some lame sci fi flick. I would need to follow a set of industry-defined rules before I could choose my roles and the course of my career.

When you look at stardom this way, being a successful starlet doesn’t sound very appealing, does it?

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And yet, many of us working stiffs make a similar tradeoff with our lives when we buy into the definitions of success within our respective industries. Whatever the definition, we feel we must go in whatever direction has been determined as “up”. For most of us “up” means more money, a senior title, and more responsibility. Our bosses, or “agents” determine which projects will grant us promotions. And the underlying culture, typically very different from Hollywood’s, requires a number of must-do’s in order to make it. Maybe it’s not constant partying, but pehaps it’s contstant working. Maybe you are not expected to show your face at a Lakers game, but you sure as hell better make an appearance at the company holiday party, or an industry conference.

I remember working for a new media company in New York and learning right away that leaving by 5pm, or even 7pm, was frowned upon. The company prided itself on it’s “always on” culture. The people there were young, intense and dedicated, so I played along, working seven days a week and coming to and from the office at ungodly hours. I never questioned whether I should be off seeing friends, or, perhaps, doing nothing, though today it’s a question I ask myself every day–Is what I am doing most important to me? All forms of employment, sometimes even self-employment, come with their own sets of expectations and definitions of success. It would seem, however, that workers are now more than ever questioning them.

I read a fascinating article in Knowledge@Wharton: “Plateauing: Redefining Success at Work” (membership sign-in required) which delved into the shift in how growing numbers of workers, particularly women, are changing their careerbuilding standards, and what this means for companies.

“…people are still ambitious, and they are still driving. They just aren’t driving for the same things they were driving for 15 years ago,” says Executive Coach Monica McGrath, in the article.

On a vast level, people are asking themselves, do I even like the Lakers? What if all this time, I really just wanted to stay home?

The piece makes an astute point: While almost all workplaces assume that ascension is the objective of employees, it is in fact increasingly plateauing–maintaining a strong but steady level of performance while distributing overall focus to other areas of life, such as family or volunteer work.

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In some cases the plateau period is forced, say, due to an unforeseen circumstance as having to take care of an ill parent, reducing focus on career. Though a growing number of plateau periods, are the result of employees actively deciding to focus on their kids, marriages, charity work, hobbies, or other forms of fulfillment.

A recent study by baby boomer media company ThirdAge concluded that upon reaching a peak in their careers, a significant number of workers develop new objectives behind their work. The K@W article confirms that many become more interested in mentoring, or giving back and establishing a broader legacy.

Gen Y workers have come to the conclusion much sonner that you are not what you do. According to a report cited in the K@W article, “Generation & Gender (2004)”:

Among college-educated men of Gen-Y, Gen-X and boomer ages, 68% wanted to move into jobs with more responsibility in 1992, versus only 52% in 2002. Among college-educated women of Gen-Y, Gen-X and boomer ages, the decrease was even higher: 57% wanted to move into jobs with more responsibility in 1992 versus 36% in 2002

And more women business leaders than men (34% vs 21%, respectively) say that they have scaled down their career aspirations because the sacrifices that moving up the ladder entailed were too great.

This trend has companies worried: If you had to hire someone, whom would you choose, the person who says she would put everything down to finish a critical project, or the the woman who makes clear that she will be unreachable after five? Sure, we may give lip service to being in favor of flex time and work/life balance, but not when it impacts the everyday realities of a global workload.

And yet, this view is shortsighted. If the article is accurate, and all workers experience periods of plateau in their careers, the diversity in expectation may actually benefit a company. Imagine running a project with all hard-driving people all seeking simultaneously to enhance their careers. With only the most ambitious, self-serving types in the mix, there’s less room for mentoring, or simply getting a task done for the sake of completing it. With everyone in a state of aggressive career building, there isn’t enough learning or stability that would result from the long-standing types that are known for consistent, reliable performance.

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“We need to replace the corporate ladder with a corporate lattice,” says Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, senior advisor Anne Weisberg, who is developing a pilot program for employees that will approach their career planning according to self-defined, not pre-defined goals.

I call this concept “lateral benefits”–incentives that will motivate employees to not necessarily climb up the ladder, but more develop themselves personally as well as professionally. Just a few years ago more progressive companies approached this concept by putting foosball tables in the workplace, but today it means something much deeper. Among the hot new benefits of a new, lateral structure: limited commute, flex hours, independent projects, perhaps even 1099 status.

According to The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s (GEM) latest report on 2006 Entrepreneurial Activity:

Buoyed by a strengthening economy, U.S. entrepreneurs have created most of the 6.8 million new jobs in the nation since 2003. These entrepreneurs are young (under 35), educated (52% with one or more degrees), and continue to choose the entrepreneurial, opportunity-driven lifestyle over more stable—and frequently– more lucrative careers.

In Hollywood terms, our careers won’t be about Blockbusters, Oscars, or even living in Hollywood. We will take the stage however we want to. And we’ll tell you when we are ready to take our bows.

Jory Des Jardins also blogs at Pause and BlogHer.org.

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