How to make ladder-climbing a positive experience

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The work world offers a continuum of means to stability. Huge risk takers might choose to pay off the Russian mob and try to corner to oil market in Siberia. If you’re looking for stability, you might try climbing a corporate ladder in a large, publicly traded company.

Climbing, of course, could lead to instability. The less valuable you are to the company, the more likely you are to be laid off, given mind-numbing work, or given positions that offer little flexibility. And those situations often lead to big instability.

But there are a few things you can do to make ladder-climbing easier. So here are three ideas, and one general tip: Pay attention to employment litigation – where the courts are systematically documenting what helps and hinders ladder-climbers as a way to protect minorities from discrimination.

1. Start somewhere good.
There are companies that are known for being respectful of employees and there are companies known for being embroiled in litigation from bitter employees.

Stay away from the latter. Daniel Gilbert shows that if the last girl liked the guy you’re dating than you’ll probably like him, too. It is not a big leap to apply this research to the workplace. If other people love working at the company, then you will too.

So talk to former employees and find out if they liked the company. (Current employees often have too much invested in their job to tell you the company stinks.) LinkedIn is actually a great way to find former employees of a given company. And most people will be happy to tell you if they loved their former match.

2. Get a sponsor.
In order to move up in a large company you need someone to guide you. A sponsor is someone who is a mentor, but it’s a specific type of mentor. This person is well-connected in the company, who will not only make you known to the right people, but will help you steer yourself within the company.

You find a sponsor the same way you would find a mentor. By networking, by approaching the person directly, or by asking your human resources department if there’s a company program you can join.

It is well documented that a sponsor works to get an employee up the ladder. And because of this, when a large company gets in trouble for not promoting enough minorities into senior management, one way they can remedy the problem (reg. req.) in a way that satisfies the courts is to establish a sponsor program for minorities.

This should be enough evidence for you to set up your own little program, for yourself.

3. Get into a line management position.
Corporations are set up to favor ladder climbing from line management rather than from support roles.

What does this mean? Line managers are directly responsible for generating money for the company (think product management or sales). Support staff, on the other hand, is responsible for making things run smoothly so the line managers can generate money (think human resources, public relations, or customer service).

Support managers generally do not have the profit-and-loss experience necessary for a top management position. Of all the CEOs who worked their way up the ladder, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with someone who made their mark on the company in a support role. And discrimination lawsuits have identified placing minorities in human resources and public relations departments as inherently career-limiting moves.

One of the most important pieces of climbing a ladder is creating a situation where you have enough clout to create a furtively flexible work life. (For example, a last-minute decision to go to a basketball game does not raise any eyebrows.) This is what will make ladder climbing palatable over an extended period of time.

Take a job that allows you to adding directly to the company’s bottom line, because if you can take responsibility for profits then you will get more leeway to create the kind of work life you want. And, that, after all, is the key to making a climb up the ladder a positive experience.

13 replies
  1. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    Your comment about discrimination lawsuits identifying placing minorities in HR and PR departments as inherently career-limiting moves is a good reminder about the plateaux inherent in some companies’ structures. I am in a support department (I manage Quality Assurance for a manufacturing plant), and before I took the position I discussed it with a friend at a software company – a friend who manages QA for a particular line. She warned me to watch out for the “pink ghetto” (her quote, and I apologise if it offends anyone) – departments where women can become managers, but where they then become trapped. Unfortunately, Quality tends to be one of these.

    Fortunately right now I have a great mentor/sponsor, and she’s trying to position me with other people so that I can progress to more “bottom line” related departments. She’s retiring soon, but I will keep working on finding a new sponsor, and getting out of support. Your column is once again absolutely right – there are definitely advantages to what you call line management positions. But sometimes a (brief, targeted) move off the line is the only way to position yourself to eventually move up it. My current support position has much more visibility, and if I can shine here and reduce costs, I can make people take notice.

    * * * * * *


    Thank you for using the term “pink ghetto” on the blog. Important term.

    Everyone, I’m really sorry to say this, but if your department is full of women and the rest of the company is not, do a reality check: You might be in a department that is going nowhere. I wish this weren’t true, but I have to concurr with Joanne here.

  2. Gordon Whyte
    Gordon Whyte says:

    your last point is very true, once you are in the position of power lol you can take the odd hour off or go for an early lunch…but also the higher youa re up the ladder the more stones come your way :) it’s all about balance and desire..



  3. CKWong
    CKWong says:

    Unfortunately I’m in a support role and love it very much, I guess that means a limited opportunity for me. I wish management can acknowledge the importance of the support staffs. But reality is that the main actors/actresses are all that matter, all the rest of the people are just there to make them shine.

    I wonder if there are any industries that value the support staffs as much as the money-generating ones? Maybe non-profit?

  4. Susan
    Susan says:

    I’m sorry to say it, but as someone who does PR/marketing for a non-profit (double the pink ghetto factor), these same rules of hierarchy can apply. Sometimes at a really small non-profit (my friend works on a staff of eight people), you can boundary span and wear a lot of different hats, but my experience has been that you’re expected to pay your dues by working in a support role AND go without an annual bonus. Your reward is in fulfilling the mission.

  5. R. William Holland
    R. William Holland says:

    Very solid advice, but let’s refine that business about a sponsor. Mentoring relationships are two-way streets. That is, what you can do for the mentor is just as important as what the mentor can do for you. If you are doing project work for them, be sure and do a great job. If it is information that’s being provided, make sure you check and re-check it for accuracy and usability.
    You will find that mentees who do excellent work with and for their mentors get much stronger support.

    For these reasons and many more, company sponsored mentoring programs are not the best way to go–unless that’s all you’ve got. Good mentess do good work and are recognized for it. Those that offer less are often little more than partonized and eventually disappointed about the whole process.
    Great blog. You will hear more from me!!

  6. R. William Holland
    R. William Holland says:

    There seems to be a sense among employees today that they will be asked to leave long before moving up becomes an issue. As such, climbing the organizational ladder is in danger of becoming a lost art. I thought that when I read Penelope's advice about finding an organizational sponsor – a "specific type of mentor who is well connected, will make you known to the right people, and help you steer yourself within the Company.

    At one time climbing the organizatonal ladder was a dirty word. Now it is someting all of us should learn more about…

    Read my post on the subject at

    R. William Holland

  7. Beth
    Beth says:

    I worked in banking for a year while in college in the late 70s and hated it. I worked in a support position. Our department was full of women, as were all the other support departments. We trained men daily, who came through each department for a few days to learn, before they moved on up. Some of us also put up with blatant sexual harassment in those days. It was VERY evident to me that women in general would go nowhere in banking at that time. Talk about a pink ghetto. Whole departments full of women and female supervisors were housed in cold, dank, windowless basements on the lower floors of the bank. I left. No, I fled. I went into education, which is a whole world unto itself, where few of these “rules” apply. (Lots of nepotism.) I did have female friends who did well in banking later on when the tide changed a little for women. But still, they never earned much over 80 to 90 thousand over the years. However, they made lots of contacts with men in business that benefited them in other ways. For example, construction and auto sales. Got great decks or additions built for a good price, etc. You can starve as an educator while your house rots, your kids wear hand me downs and you drive old cars, and on and on. But I loved my job, and I knew exactly how I would be paid for my work over the years. Everyone else who had the same experience and educational levels were paid the same. There was very little game playing among the classroom teachers, except for an occasional nut job or those young teachers who were there only to do their time before moving up into management. Except for the nepotism that I mentioned earlier. Its rampant in education. So is hiring folks from your local church, which is also rampant. You stay in education for 30 years because you convince yourself it is for a higher cause. There are great benefits, and it is always stable. It used to be that you’d have to REALLY mess up to be fired. If you know you are going to stay in the classroom forever, that you have no aspirations to rise to upper management, you can keep your credibility as a teacher and sleep at night since you won’t feel pressure to tell the assistant superintendent of instruction ( or whatever title…yada, yada, education is full of titles that make lityle sense ) that her son can actually write a decent exposition. Sometimes if you tell the truth about a child’s strengths and weaknesses, and if you work toward helping that child succeed, it’s going to make his parent angry. (Why would trying to help a child increase his skills make his parent mad? Because that parent holds an educational management position, and so they live and breathe by a different philosophical view of the world, if you get my meaning.) My reason for staying in education was the fact that I had time off to spend with my own children which was very important to me. If you’re a married female, and your spouse has a good job, it is a good deal. But like I said, it’s hard if you’re divorced, as many teachers are. Most teachers work very hard because they adore children and will do whatever it takes to help. However, it is possible to be an educator and only promote yourself. Only concentrate on moving into management positions. Only focus on where the money is in education and how to retire with a six figure benefit. (No matter what the media says, the average teacher who has been in the classroom for 30 years, who is not a superintendent or in higher level management at the county office, does NOT retire wealthy.) I chose to retire at 55 after over 30 years of service. I have a good pension and will also receive social security. I also have medical coverage in my state with BCBS until Medicare kicks in at 65. After all that has happened in the “business world” over the past few years, I am in a good position, I suppose. Other, slightly older women, seem “awed” that I could retire at 55. (Truth is, hard to continue to stand on your feet all day and grade thousands of essays with my eyesight–most teachers are burning out by 25 years.) Since I am retired from education, I would now like to do a little work in the business world. I would like to make a little money. I would like to fix my leaking roof. So, I’m reading, researching, and talking to others. At my age, I don’t expect a lot. But my research into the business world alarms me. How the heck did you women survive all the crap you had to put up with all these years? You have my prayers. And my respect. I think I’m headed toward a part time position in the medical field. I’m starting my research and training in that field now. Anyone with any experience in this area of our economy? How do women make it in the medical world?

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