From Ladder to Lattice: How the Economy Changed the Meaning of Career Growth

Black businesswomanBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

In many ways, the recession was a wakeup call for corporate America. As companies cut back their workforces, those remaining were asked to do more with less. Now, we’re all expected to be generalists, not only willing, but capable of learning across the organization. We have to ease effortlessly into new roles and responsibilities while expanding on our already-existing skill sets, regardless of our official job description or title. And according to Joanne Cleaver, titles aren’t even really relevant anymore; they fall short in conveying the full spectrum of a person’s skills and experience.

In other words, the career ladder is gone and the emerging model is the lattice.

Cleaver’s new book, The Career Lattice: Combat Brain Drain, Improve Company Culture, and Attract Top Talent is her guide to strategic lateral moves, compiled after conducting dozens of interviews and case studies on how individuals and employers can grow and thrive in a slow-growth economy. The book couldn’t have been possible without Cleaver’s research partner, The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), a national nonprofit that collaborates with major employers and thousands of colleges to introduce new career pathways for working adults. CAEL was actually credited with popularizing the term “career lattice” back in 2002. (And the idea of latticing was also bolstered by Cathy Benko and Anne C. Weisberg, in their book Mass Career Customization.)

According to Cleaver’s book, a career lattice is a diagonal framework that braids lateral experiences, adjacent skill acquisition, and peer networking to move employees to any of a variety of positions for which they have become qualified. Cleaver writes that the lattice is about evolution. It’s about adding new skills, experience, abilities, and networks to those that already exist. It’s about letting go of the bits that are no longer relevant in the workforce while blending in new elements that anticipate and encourage the growth of individuals and organizations.

Cleaver says there are two crucial elements that need to be in place to make latticing work: the willingness to celebrate growth no matter how it looks, and the ability to recognize a wide spectrum of professional development. The look of success is changing and employers need to be able to not just recognize, but rally around these newly emerging paths to growth.

Is Latticing Good for Women?

“In the U.S. we’ve had trouble thinking in terms of career paths. Instead, we think of ‘reinventions.’ That’s a bad approach,” Cleaver says. “You don’t want to reinvent for a new career, turning your back on your established network or your experience. You should always think about how you can get a return on your investment; about how your skills can be combined for new positions. Latticing works no matter where you are in your career or what your age is. You’re actually doing a disservice when you just focus on Millennials or more senior employees.”

And given the uncertain jobs market, she continued, more people need to think in terms of latticing. “The economy is not gaining traction and what more people need to realize is that they have a profound grip on the steering wheel of their own career. Your current job may not exist in six months and if you’re not trying to figure out how your skills fit emerging needs, you’re out.”

The perfect example of latticing relates to social media experts. They’re now ubiquitous, despite the fact that the whole industry is still relatively new. According to Cleaver, the way people in the industry were able to become experts in their field despite the absence of any established career path is through latticing. They used what they knew and applied it to new situations, entering PR, working as communications coordinators, breaking into social media marketing, among countless other paths.

Shawn Hulsizer, CAEL’s senior program director, says that there’s no evidence to suggest that the career lattice is beneficial to just women in particular. But it does seem as if this approach to would empower women to sidestep the corporate ladder, a model that hasn’t ever met many women’s career needs.

“Because of the career lattice there’s no longer this stigma about not getting the corner office. Now, you can create your own path,” Hulsizer says. “Making lateral moves opens up more possibilities. There are only so many C-suite positions available, but there are so many other roles that you might not have considered. It’s about identifying these positions that have a high turnover and creating intention around them.”

Intentional Training & Other Things Companies Need to Know

Hulsizer says that a recent study found that 56 percent of employees are willing to make a lateral move, but only if they’re helped to identify what it is. What it boils down to is that employees are willing to learn new things in order to stay with an organization, but many organizations are ill-equipped at helping them and they’re letting talented, eager employees slip through their fingertips as a result.

Part of the problem is that employers don’t understand the power of training. Training programs need to be reviewed so that employers can ensure they’re not just offering training, but the right training. The biggest mistake employers make, according to Cleaver, is that the technical training many companies provide only addresses what they need now, not the skills that employees need to know in the long term. This is why CAEL’s work is so profound: it enables employees to seek training outside of their company so they’re not getting pigeon-holed into another dead-end role. CAEL helps people build off of already existing skills and attain certification so that they have a sustainable, long-lasting career capable of encompassing many different roles, as opposed to just having the skills and training they need to be successful at one.

According to the recent CareerBuilder Talent Crunch Report, more than a third of employers currently have open positions for which they cannot find qualified candidates, most of them being fulltime, permanent staff. Those who work in larger companies are more likely than those in small businesses to report open positions they cannot find qualified candidates for, so being intentional with training not only creates latticing opportunities for employees, but it reduces turnover and vacancies for the company and increases product quality and morale.

The lattice should also be seen as a form of collaboration for team managers. Rather than being territorial about their resources, the lattice enables cross-team collaboration. Managers can assist their team members in merging into new roles by helping them identify their skills and how they can be leveraged. “This achieves both short and long-term goals and it returns the investment the company made,” Cleaver says. “When you link training to career planning, it leads to more effective problem solving.”

Hulsizer says it’s also useful for supervisors to identify the ranking order of positions so that employees are better informed when they begin thinking about making lateral career moves. “It can really inform their path,” Hulsizer says. “It’s very important that a supervisor has an answer for an employee when they ask, ‘Where do I go next?’”

As Cleaver mentioned previously, it is employees who are in the driving seat and according to Hulsizer, there are a number of things employees can do to ensure they’re making informed decisions. The most important thing is to learn by asking questions. Draw upon your extended business and personal networks, talk to people who are currently in positions that you want to be in, and ask them how they got to where they are. Most CEOs, Hulsizer says, did not work their way up the corporate ladder. More often than not what you’ll hear about is a series of strategic lateral moves that enabled them to build on their skills, take on new roles across the organization, and form a well-rounded career so that when the C-suite did become an option, they were more than prepared. If nothing else, these conversations will spark inspiration and have you considering options you would have never thought about otherwise.

Hulsizer also encourages employees to sit down and have a serious conversation with their company’s workplace development team. Asking, “How do my skills fit into the bigger picture?” not only shows your commitment to growing with the organization, but it can provide some insightful information.

What Career Latticing is Not

According to Cleaver, the traditional notion of mid-career flexibility that’s currently owned by women came from work/life balance conversations that started to really emerge in the 1980s. As a result, latticing is now a more culturally acceptable mid-career solution for women, but Cleaver wants to be very clear about something: latticing is not synonymous with dialing back on career options.

“Latticing can actually add short-term pressure to your life because now you’re balancing work, family responsibilities, and training or studying for additional certification,” Cleaver says. “Latticing is not the same as scaling back. Flexible work options aren’t necessarily synonymous, but they can be worked into latticing. Additional training and certification can help you explore new ways of working. As a working mother, maybe you’ll be able to accept contract work or work from home, but getting to that point will require extra work and dedication.”

In fact, Cleaver suggests, it might be difficult for some employees to know if they’re successfully latticing. In The Career Lattice, she explains that in the past latticing got a bad rap. For high potential employees tapped for the fast track, their next steps usually encompassed several sprints through lateral rotations. For others who were not “the chosen ones,” latticing was just a nice term for “holding pattern.”

Knowing if you’re in a holding pattern can be as simple as taking a serious look at the culture of your organization. If you know the recent skills you’ve acquired have contributed to the organization and helped you take on more responsibilities, but yet you’re not growing, that’s your cue. You can make the choice to leave, or keep on pushing to make the company aware that you’re highly marketable and that you’ve successfully blended what you know with what everyone needs to know moving forward and that you’re going to continue delivering long-term results.

“The combination of influence and results is bigger than any title,” Cleaver says. “Some companies won’t get it, in which case you can move on to someone who does. We need to stop just looking at the next position and start mapping out the next two to three steps. It does feel risky to think so far in advance, but because you’re blending your private goals with your professional skills, you’ll have a more meaningful, fulfilling career.”