Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Ladder Fallacy (A Work-Related Post)

We have been taught to climb the ladder from a very early age. The last two churches we attended even called the seasonal Sunday School class changes "Promotion Sunday."

In school, we go from grade to grade. The ascent is slightly predictable... each year a new grade. Rare is the child who takes longer or who climbs quicker, both are outliers, if not outcasts. When you get to college, you have a little more control, but more-or-less, 2 or 4 years and it's on to the next thing.

It was the thing to do, right? Or at least I thought so.

Of course, that was before I entered the workforce professionally. At my first company, I was hire #1, there from the beginning, we met in my apartment before we had office space. Next, a little more corporate, a little more established. I was hired in as part of a team and it wasn't long before I was responsible for the team. I didn't exactly know what I was doing and my boss wasn't too thrilled I was having team meetings without her.

After that, a volunteer gig turned into a contracting gig turned into a nearly-full-time job turned into a full-time-job. I didn't have staff, but there were a few volunteers, one of them really dedicated, working for me. After that, my current job. For awhile there, it seemed like I was getting called into a conference pretty regularly and given more authority and a better title and more money.

And then it stopped.

Attempts to take matters into my own hands and make big plays for what I thought was the next thing failed miserably. I got moved around, helped in a number of areas, righted some ships, navigated some different leadership opportunities, but it was all on paper, no title change, no change in pay beyond the yearly increases (when we had them) and occasionally a summer bonus (though there's been a draught there, too, lately).

If you've been with me, you know April last year was extremely hard on me. I was marginalized, passed over for a position I was sure was mine and my boss' boss who had often previously sought my opinion on things was now rarely coming to me with questions. And when he did, it was more of a punch in the gut. "Hey, James - I need your opinion on something," he said one day, "where should your new boss sit?" I didn't know if I was going to still be working there, but I looked at my options and felt the struggle within the known was more appealing than the complete unknown (and undoubtedly longer commute).

Fortunately, that proved to be the right move. Things improved, my new boss was infinitely more qualified than I was for the role and he inherited all kinds of really complex headaches. Now, to be sure, I have my share of headaches, but I'm grateful they're nothing like his. (Plus, he has me on his team and I'm a pretty good guy to have around.)

And then I read Guy Kawasaki's Enchanted (my review) and Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You (my review) and I started to realize trying to climb the ladder was only making me unhappy. Why not, I thought, just be happy where I am?

Why not, indeed?

Suddenly, everything changed. Or possibly changed back. While I was getting regularly called into conference rooms, I wasn't being ambitious, I was just working hard. When I stopped getting called into conference rooms and started trying to make my own ladders, that's when I started to get discouraged.

Depending on how you look at the stats, 1/3 to 1/2 of my life is in my rearview mirror. I've probably got about 20-25 more years of punching a time clock ahead of me. We can't all be CEO. And if we're all gunning for the CEO's job, there's going to be lots and lots of disappointed people. Besides, if the headaches my boss has are any indication, they only get worse the higher you get.

So, not that I don't want a promotion, not that I won't be ready at some point to take on the types of headaches my boss deals with, but I'm better served to, as they say, "bloom where I'm planted." Get really good at what I do - get really smart about the technology, get a lot of practice managing, take a serious look at the areas I could improve, work to improve them, and most of all, make sure that when I leave work each day that I'm satisfied - that I did a good job, that my team is moving in the right direction and that the absolutely most important things in life are actually still ahead of me at home: my family.

And you know what? People can see the difference, they've said so. And I changes the way I manage and lead my team and I'm pretty sure I'm seeing a difference there already as well.
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