4 Ways to sidestep corporate hierarchy

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Most people stay at a company less than seven years. Most young people stay at a company less than two. So why are companies still set up for people who stay 40 years and climb the ladder? It makes no sense, and frustrates nearly all workers.

Well, all workers who aren’t at the top of the ladder, anyway. Those at the top surely think keeping the ladder there is a good idea, because what was the point of their climb if no one is climbing up after them?

Fortunately, there are ways to circumvent this way of thinking. You can’t change corporate structures and procedures, but you can sidestep them in a way that gets you more interesting work and higher pay without having to trudge up an anachronistic ladder. Here are four:

1. Get on a team.

“Teamwork” is one of the big corporate buzzwords of the last two decades. This is because companies with effective teams do better than companies without them.

The problem is that baby boomers never learned to play on teams. They’re the consummate competitors, born into a demographic in which there were always too many candidates for every position. Boomers are thus keen competitors, measuring each other up for everything. So the data that showed the importance of teams was followed quickly by a round of consulting companies specializing in teaching people how to be in multidisciplinary, non-hierarchical teams.

Then came Generation Y, the best team players in history. They did book reports in teams, went shopping in groups — they’re so team-oriented they even went to the prom in packs.

Put these two groups in a room and tell them to be a team, and you know what happens? The young people run circles around the older ones. The older workers try to establish a hierarchy while the younger ones are oblivious because they’re busy tossing out ideas.

A messy scene, for sure, but this is the way to get heard, and this is the way to shine outside the hierarchy: Get on a team, speak your mind, and implement your ideas — all while the baby boomers are worrying about hierarchy.

2. Job hop.

The rules for when you can be promoted, when your salary can increase, and when you’re eligible for training are all strict and senseless and essentially a waste of your time. Why should you wait for these things when you’re not staying with the company more than a few years anyway?

If your learning curve is flattening because your company can’t promote you to another level, take things into your own hands and go to another company. That is a fast way to give yourself a promotion without having to endure the duress of a corporate structure.

Job-hopping used to be the sign of a disloyal employee, but today we know better. In today’s workplace, frequent job change is a way to stay engaged in your work, and job-hopping among positions you’re good at actually builds your skill set and network much faster than if you stay in one job for a long time. This is why job hopping is a great tool — it can actually provide your career path with a stable, upward slope.

3. Start your own business.

You don’t need a lot of money to start your own company, because most of the tools to open up shop online are free. And in most cases, marketing is cheap and easy if you can establish a viral networking effect among your friends. This is why, in the short time that Generation Y has been in the workforce, they’ve already made a mark as a generation of entrepreneurs.

In addition to being fast and easy to do, starting a company lets you do interesting work you can control without having to wait to get to the top of a corporate ladder. Some people quit their jobs to start a company while others run theirs on the weekend. Increasingly, however, people are running a company from their corporate cubicle.

4. Be nice.

You know who gets promoted the fastest? The person your boss likes the most. So why not spend your time making sure you’re that person? Don’t dish out any excuses about how you won’t kiss up — a kiss-up is someone who tries to be nice but is instead insipid. I’m not recommending that you be insipid.

What I am recommending is that you genuinely try to figure out what your boss needs from you and how to give it to him. Determine how to make extra time in your day to help your boss out, and figure out what she needs help with before she realizes it. And then be there.

Office politics is often a way to sidestep corporate hierarchy, and the great news is that if you’re nice this will be right up your alley. Because office politics is about being nice. And how can you resist training yourself to be nice at work?

17 replies
  1. Double Journey
    Double Journey says:

    This is EXACTLY why I left my job at Microsoft recently. The system is set up for people who have been there a dozen years and go to the top because the company grew under them. Because it has grown so big, it would have taken me twenty years to get where I wanted to go, and that would have been very fast because the company can’t grow as fast as it once did. I know several people who left for similar reasons.

    I have since joined a much smaller company where the opportunities are much greater for someone who is younger and willing to take on whatever work and responsibility necessary to succeed.

  2. Alan Wilensky
    Alan Wilensky says:

    I straddled the generations; my career was an experiment in explaining to old line companies why I hadn’t ever stayed more than four years at any one outfit. The mid-late nineties pre-boom wanted to know why I was so long in dallying the four years.

    Even more bizarre, the collection of upstart startups that I have worked for over the years are all but gone, and those I worked for are scattered to the wind. In the days before linked-in, it was all but impossible to get references – letter are ok, but if cant call the person…WTF!

  3. thom singer
    thom singer says:


    I sometimes disagree with some of your splitting of generational characteristics in the workplace…but you are spot on in this post. I agree that many younger workers are quick to work as a team. (Not that there are not some who would gladly throw a co-worker under the bus to get ahead). They also are enthusiastic to build friendships and network with others….even old guys like me.

    I read the whole post on Yahoo Finance, and all of your points are good advice for people who want to get ahead. The part about being nice is very important. People think this goes without saying, but I see it all the time that those who are liked and who work to help others achieve their goals are the ones who succeed in the long run.

    I speak about the importance of business relationships and networking skills, and it sometimes surprises people that to get real business referrals from their network that I teach they must give give give. If they are too focused on what they can get, they get less.

  4. sarah
    sarah says:

    It’s weird. Gen X might as well not exist as far as you are concerned. Like the comment above about straddling the generations – you can’t straddle the boomers and gen Y, what that means is that you are Gen X. But anyway, you aren’t gen Y, and gen Y haven’t yet proven themselves as anything. They haven’t been there long enough. You merely hypothesise from your position of distant worship.

  5. Blue
    Blue says:

    I’m surprised at the vehemence against this line of thinking on the Yahoo website; I tried to comment but couldn’t find the button… apparently you’ve touched a raw nerve with some Gen Xers.

    I like that it’s against conventional wisdom, and it’s spot on the pulse of the frustration of my generation (I’m 25). One of the shocks I had when I went from college to the workforce was the snails pace, lack of incentives, and intellectual dullness that pervades almost any entry level job. Face time is one of the harshest and most counterproductive ways to reward success. It’s simply not an incentive, when due to the instability of jobs today we realize that even working diligently for 5-10 years at a company can be taken away with two weeks notice.

    Any business’s ultimate goal is Production. The ones that product the most at the least cost will have the most profit and thrive. So it makes sense that businesses that are the most flexible in incorporating a meritocratic environment with incentives to innovate will thrive. Unfortunately the more established companies already have a system that works, and it’s difficult to convince someone to mess with something that’s making you money. So they’re not going to make any meaningful changes, regardless of what they say. Jumping out and starting our own companies is one of the few ways to really set up an environment where we can learn.

    And honestly there’s the harsh reality of demographics… We’ve got a huge group of increasingly healthy older workers that are staying longer in the workforce. Managerial and decision-making positions are limited in ratio to order-driven positions (too many chiefs, not enough indians is not a way to run a business).

    Entrepreneurial business may be one of the few options we have if we want to realistically have any kind of intellectual stimulation before we’re 35 and still a replaceable commodity because all we’ve done is filing and excel spreadsheets for the past ten years.

  6. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    Last summer I was facilitating a seminar on “advanced marketing to generation x” as part of a three day conference. The group consisted of 2 boomers, 3 Gen Xers, and 1 millenial. About half way through, I pulled out some paper and a pack of about 150 colored markers and told them to create a catalog cover targeted at Gen X. The Xers shrugged and just did it. The Millenial came up with three different covers (and, by the way, wanted to turn them in at the end), but the Boomers were frozen. The Boomer woman never did put anything on the paper. The Boomer man got something down (and it was good), but was freaking out that he didn’t do it “right.” In the end, the Xers and the Millenial were throwing around ideas like “I liked that, and you know what else you could do…” and the Boomers really didn’t say much (the man, however, seemed really surprised that they others had nice things to say about his “coloring,” understood where he was going with it, and had ideas on how to make it stronger.)

    In terms of working on teams, I still think the big divide is between the Boomers and the Xers. Xers aren’t hierarchal. I think as Xers, we’re really like the middle child. We get ripped on for stupid things, but in the end we’re the ones that get everyone to get along.

  7. James Hagen
    James Hagen says:

    WOW. I came to this site after reading your article on Yahoo. From the comments above, and as a boomer, it is no certainly no surprise how easy it is to take advantage of gen X and Y. As they run around in teams congratulating each other and generally having a mutual admiration society meeting, AND boo-hooing about how “hard” work is, the real achievers are out getting things done. There is a reason it’s called WORK people!!!

  8. Will
    Will says:

    Great post as usual. You really touch a nerve with this stuff and I think you can measure the success of your articles by the nastiness-level of the comments on Yahoo!

    I think this “loyalty” thing that some companies reward is largely overrated. It encourages people to stick around for decades and does not reward newcomers who come in with lots of energy and try to make things better and more efficient.

  9. JC
    JC says:

    Well I’m an X’er. And we’re known to be self sufficient, cynical, and like to slack off. We don’t need praise to feel good about ourselves like the Millennials (the coddled generation), but we need feedback to see how we’re doing.

    Anyway enough about the generation stuff, this article is about how to sidestep corporate hierarchy.

    I do like the idea of job hopping. That is probably the fastest way to work around the traditional, stuffy corporate hierarchy. You can also change job to a newer, smaller company that is started by an X’er or a Millennials. They probably won’t have that ridged hierarchy that traditional, big companies have.

    Also you totally have to be nice and kiss ass. And you have to be seen by the higher ups so you can do that. So go to every company function, happy hour, meeting, etc. Getting your face out there and being buddies with your bosses is a good way to beat the system.

  10. HiTechDad
    HiTechDad says:

    Right on Penelope. Like one previous commenter I hoped all over in the mid 90’s early 2000’s then I co-founded a company that I have been at for 5 years now. Longest I have worked in any place in my entire life. Some days I feel I need to get out of the way because I have grown to stale and jaded. I have to continually remind myself to take risk, encourage new thinking and get things done.

  11. Erik
    Erik says:

    It’s funny. I was told that I was on an inter-departmental team at the beginning of this year. All masters-level people in my department (there’s 3 of us) would be on a “Vision Team”.

    Now, 6 months later, I ask my supervisor, “When is our Vision Team going to meet?”

    She replies, “We’ve been meeting. When we feel like we need input from the regular hall staff, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

    It’s nice that my desire to be on a team started out to be expected, and then later, my position as a whole was deemed too inferior to be part of the glorious team.

  12. Chris L.
    Chris L. says:

    It’s funny that there is even a serious debate about the virtues of Gen Y versus Gen X versus the BB generation. It’s not the generation that matters, it’s the individual. Every generation has their share of low-aptitude people, lazy people, criminals, and low-lives. Every generation also has their share of talented, intelligent, gifted people who will make a serious contribution to the world. To make claims like “Gen Y are the best team players in history.” Well… at very least that’s debatable. There are a lot of people who think Gen Y are spoiled, self-centered people who were taught that they were overly special as children. Truth is, you’ll find both types of people in Gen Y as you will in Gen X, as you will in the Baby Boomer gen.

    Since your posts do appear on Yahoo Finance, I think you should qualify your advice on frequent job hopping. If people are encouraged to switch jobs every 2 years, they’re basically leaving around 1/3 of the value of their 401k’s on the table when they do. Maybe that’s not important if you’re in Gen Y, after all, life does end at 30 right?

  13. Dale
    Dale says:


    I agree with the first three, getting on an important team project, job hopping, and starting one’s own business – sought of, this one can be difficult. But I have my doubts about the being nice suggestion. I think it is more important to be liked, but that differs from being nice.

    Case in point, my current replacement at an old job is well liked, hence his rehire after leaving, and his subsequent promotion. But he is anything but nice, at least to those below him in position. Our superiors like him and I guess he is nice to them. But everyone else sees him as a hack, and complain to me about it.

    Being liked is not the same as being nice, but I suppose on occasion we find people who exhibit both qualities.

    On a side note, I’m off to visit home after 14 years. Leaving at the end of Dec and returning at the end of January.
    Fight the good fight in the meantime:)

  14. Kelvin
    Kelvin says:

    I agree with the part about starting your own business. I know lots of people who are unwilling to work within a corporate hierarchy, or are unwilling to start at the bottom who instead go on to head up their own businesses. Most of them make lots of money now. Which makes me wonder whether the whole law school thing I went into was such a good idea in the first place…

  15. Ernie
    Ernie says:

    Oops. Once again, your generational bias missed the mark. TEAMS require competition. As a communications instructor in college, this is probably the strongest bond between Baby Boomers and Gen Y. Both generations mistrust the Gen X self esteem model, i.e, “everyone gets a trophy at the soccer game”. TQM was invented by Baby Boomers and Gen X/Gen Y electronic customer service has effectively derailed any advances made in corporate team work. The NY Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, LA Lakers, three mighty teams are very competitive. It’s called Capitalism”. Your advice is sound, however the Gen X inferiority complex manifests itself in your writing.

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