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Climb the Ladder or Perch in a Tree: It’s not always about promotion

By Kathleen Quinn Votaw

It’s time we start thinking beyond promotion as the only way to climb the career ladder. The reality is, we’ve lost nine million jobs in the past few years; and it’s looking like many of the new jobs being created will be at the top and the bottom of skill sets, with fewer in the middle. Further your education? That’s now a goal that seems increasingly out of reach for many people. Whether dictated by economic conditions, or by personal talent or preference, career trees provide a viable alternative to traditional career ladders.

Career trees were introduced online in 2010 by Bocoup ( for Newsweek to help people visualize their careers as a tree, with the lower branches representing your education, the upper branches your employment, and the leaves the positions you’ve held. I like to think of career trees as not only a place to track your upward movement, but as a place to happily, and safely, perch.

Progressively responsible positions

Why is it that job opportunity ads continue to list “progressively responsible positions” near the top of the requirements for almost any job? Why should employees who perform outstandingly in every way but choose to remain in the same spot or make a lateral move be discounted? And what about the engineers, IT and other subject experts who may be promoted into management, not because they want to change their role, but because that’s the standard way to move up or jump to the next pay grade?

Our professional standing, our pride, and our livelihood have typically been measured by how much and how quickly we climb the rungs. Often, though, those higher rungs haven’t meant greater happiness or job satisfaction. And when experts are promoted out of their jobs, does the organization necessarily maintain the same level of excellence they had in that role with a new person? Or do they gain a better manager? Often, the answer to both questions is no.

Why not change our thinking about what a career should look like? In this economy we should be able to perch, without penalty, while we wait for the right job opportunity to come along; while we get trained in new skills; or while we save money for more education. And, if we find a particular branch of our career tree so challenging or satisfying that we want to stay in that perch for a number of years, why not do it without jeopardizing our future? Shouldn’t we be amply rewarded for being increasingly better at what we do—without having to constantly climb?

Tapping the talent that’s there

As employees, we each have a unique mix of talents, interests, and drive. Even with skills training, some people will never be suited to management, or technology, or customer service. Through assessments, self-analysis and life experience, it’s up to each of us to understand our personal mix and what it means in terms of career goals, options and satisfaction. Then go after it, recognizing that you may find greater rewards stepping across or sitting in a comfortable place, instead of climbing ever higher.

The other side of this vision is employers. Rather than force employees into roles they don’t have the talent for or interest in, employers should tap the natural talent and strengths of individuals, then provide appropriate skills training. Recognize and reward people for using their talents for the benefit of the business, for being loyal, for being innovative, for being kind. You may not always be able to promote, nor should you think of promotion as the only way to reward. Employees who grow while they perch in their tree can be as valuable as those who have the talent and drive to climb the ladder.

Wayne Dyer famously said: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Instead of thinking of a career path as a ladder that you climb up and back down, why not think of it as a tree that you can climb, or stop comfortably on any branch to perch for a while.

Kathleen Quinn Votaw is founder and CEO of TalenTrust, a unique recruitment firm that helps companies find exceptional talent to accelerate their growth. TalenTrust LLC is located in Golden, CO. Kathleen  recently completed a two-year term as president of the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG), Denver. Reach Kathleen at or 303-838-3334 x5.

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