The Ziggy-Zaggy Path To The C-Suite

 Even a road with lots of twists and turns can get you where you want to go (iStockphoto.com / wakr10)

Even a road with lots of twists and turns can get you where you want to go (iStockphoto.com / wakr10)

Careers just don't play out the same way they used to. These days, it's kind of a ziggy-zaggy path to the top.

In the not-too-distant past, when you started a new job at a company, you had one eventual goal – you wanted to be running the place. After a few jumps up the ladder, you'd be in the executive suite, next in line for the throne of CEO.

Make no mistake - upward mobility is still the dream. And it's perpetuated extensively by business schools everywhere. Then again, when you're dropping more than $200,000 for an MBA, you're hoping for the big payoff that a top job in a company can provide.

(By the way, I'm not kidding about the cost of an MBA; check out the estimated costs for one year of tuition, housing, and living expenses for business school Harvard University. These are the university's own projections – I recommend checking this out on an empty stomach.)

It's true that if you get an MBA, or another high-value advanced degree from a reputable school you'll probably see a substantial bump in pay from what you were earning before going back to school. But the ladder upward from your first job out of the program is likely going to be a more challenging climb.

There are several reasons for this, but chief among these is that companies are getting flatter In other words, many organizations are removing layers of management to (primarily) reduce cost and (secondary) increase collaboration by eliminating layers of unnecessary middle management.

Some companies take egalitarianism to an extreme. I once worked at a company that eliminated vast swathes of the organization. They tried to increase collaboration, eliminate layers, and reduce cost by removing cubicles and offices altogether, and placed the greatly reduced (and less stratified) workforce at the equivalent of park benches and picnic tables. I sat across from a Vice President, an HR Manager, and a Compliance Specialist. I can't speak to the effectiveness of this approach in terms of the impact on productivity, but it certainly sent the message that everybody was being watched and treated equally, and that rank was of less concern than getting the job done. There were a lot of unhappy people, but this company wasn't exactly trying to be recognized as "Employer of the Year," either.

The aforementioned company isn't alone. As companies try to squeeze more and more out each dollar, they continue to reduce layers and positions in the name of efficiency. The net result is fewer rungs in the ladder, with a heck of a lot more people competing to climb each step.

How do you stay engaged and challenged, and continue to grow and develop? The answer, increasingly, is diagonal or horizontal movement. In other words, if the path above you is blocked, move over and take another route.

In other words, cross-train.

For example, let's say you've been an accountant for the past several years, and the next natural step up for you would be to become a controller, but the person in that job is not going anywhere.

Why not slide over into financial analysis? Or go into corporate analytics? Or try some other role which would allow you to flex your mental muscles and apply your skill set. There are five major benefits to making such a cross-functional, lateral move.

1) Expanding Your Toolbox. By trying something different but related, you're giving yourself more skills. And perhaps, by obtaining a broader perspective, you're making yourself a little bit more prepared for that next level up. For example, in human resources the folks who tend to move up are not the specialists, but the individuals who have touched recruitment, employee relations, training, and more.

2) Taking On New Challenges. Doing the same job for too long can get dull. By putting yourself into a new role, you're forcing your brain to solve different problems. It can increase your engagement and sense of fulfillment.

3) Increasing Your Marketability. By proving yourself in a new field or area, you can be opening up a whole new set of career possibilities - both inside and outside your current employer. Your boss isn't planning on retiring for a while? Maybe the fellow in the other group is planning on a career change in the near future. Or perhaps listing that new set of skills on your resume invites calls from recruiters about new opportunities.

4) Demonstrating Your Strategic Agility. By showing your employer that you are able to succeed in not just one, but two different lines of work, you're able to demonstrate that you can handle bigger, better, and newer challenges. Perhaps your company is looking for somebody to lead a new venture, and they need an individual who has demonstrated an ability to take on new tasks and make them successful. A cross-functional assignment may put you in prime position for such a promotion.

5) Even Lateral Moves Can Be A Step Up. I've seen it happen many times - somebody is given a new role, and it's not necessarily a full promotion, but to make the move more enticing, the company offers more money and/or an increase in title. Even half-steps forward can be rewarded.

Just remember: The straight road isn't the only one that can take you to your destination.


Scott Singer is the President and Founder of Insider Career Strategies Resume Writing & Career Coaching, a firm dedicated to guiding job seekers and companies through the job search and hiring process. Insider Career Strategies provides resume writing, LinkedIn profile development, and career coaching services, including a free resume review. You can email Scott Singer at scott.singer@insidercs.com, or via the website, www.insidercs.com.