Squiggly career or career ladder, the choice is yours


What’s the career ladder and how is it different from a squiggly career?

We’ve all heard of the career ladder…it’s what many of us are taught is the only way to progress, particularly in our early careers. We focus on progressing from role to role in what looks like a generally ‘upward’ direction…measured by compensation, job title and recognition. But for many of us, we get to a point sooner or later where that upward career progression may either not be an option anymore, or it may not be the best option for us.

Keeping on climbing a ladder that’s taking us towards somewhere we’d rather not end up or continually hitting our heads against a ceiling about midway up are not the only options. In today’s world of work, squiggly careers are most definitely a real thing, and we should seriously consider whether the career ladder or whether a more squiggly career is best for us.  In this podcast, I want to give you five top tips for navigating your career whether you choose the ladder or the squiggle.

The birth of ‘squiggly careers’

First up, ‘squiggly careers’ isn’t my phrase – it comes from two people who run a business called Amazing If, Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper, who coined the term because they felt there was an alternative to the career ladder that people need to made aware of.

They’ve written a book about it and they’ve also done a 10 minute TED Talk – check it out here if you’re interested: TED Talk – The best career path isn’t always a straight line?

The importance of exploring your career possibilities

Ellis and Tupper talk about the importance of several things in managing your career which I’ll touch on today that I absolutely agree with. One thing I don’t necessarily agree with is what they say about career ladders quickly becoming a thing of the past – I think in many organisations, particularly those that are more hierarchical or traditional, career ladders will be around for a long time to come. But, in an increasing number of sectors, there is a trend towards creating the space for people to explore what they REALLY want from their careers and to follow a less traditional path if that’s their chosen option.

Ellis and Tupper talk about the importance of exploring your career possibilities throughout your career – whether these are big audacious ambitions, or hobby projects that you wish you could turn into a living, or just career directions that you’ve always been interested in or had respect for but you’ve never really considered if they might be viable for you.

What they say is that actively exploring your career options makes you more resilient simply because you have more options. So if something happens outside your control that may affect your current career path…a redundancy or a big event in your life, for example…you’ll have done some thinking work on what might be an alternative option for you. I fully endorse that – exploring your career possibilities will really help maintain or even improve your well-being and resilience levels.

Five top tips for navigating your career, whichever career path you choose

So what are my top tips for navigating your career, whether the ladder or the squiggle, or a combination of both, is most appealing to you?

  1. Build a language around your strengths
  2. Work your network…beyond the obvious
  3. Keep learning and make it personal
  4. Keep exploring your career possibilities
  5. Own your career story

Build a language around your strengths

First then – build a language around your strengths. Your strengths are what fundamentally motivates, energises and drives you. Your strengths are not your skills, although you can become skilled in using them. Strengths traverse roles and career paths and so they are probably the single most important constant in your career. So it is essential that you can communicate about your strengths to others so that they will understand the benefit that those strengths can bring to them.

If I walked into a job interview, or a contract pitch, or a new team and said ‘I have strengths in collaboration, leading and optimism’, that might give people something to go on as regards how I might be able to bring value. But if I went further and said that I’d helped build five successful businesses through collaborating well with others and countless long term client relationships.

That I have led businesses and teams of several dozen people with examples of people coming back to work for my businesses even after they’d left to pursue different interests. And that I have guided my companies through some really tough economic times, including the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 pandemic by staying focused on our vision and the opportunities we can see rather than becoming a casualty of a difficult situation, you’d probably get a better sense of what I could bring to a role, value-wise.  So reflection question – what are your strengths and how can you describe them in a compelling way in the context of the career direction you’re looking to take?

Work your network – beyond the obvious

Second tip – work your network, beyond the obvious. When I say obvious, I mean making sure that you’ve got champions and advocates in your current organisation who are going to be able to support you and open doors for you in your next career move. But the less obvious connections to nurture are those outside your current organisation, even outside your current career…people who themselves are well-connected in different walks of life and who may be able to introduce you to other people with similar interests to your own if you decide to go squiggly.

Don’t think of those connections as any lesser than the ones who can keep you climbing the ladder, think of them as connections to other possibilities that you may want to explore more fully either now or in the future. Plus, these people will help you explore your interests and passions in a way that will add to what you can do on your own.

Make your learning personal

Third – speaking of what you can do on your own, Ellis and Tupper mention in their work on squiggly careers that today’s options for learning and development are so much broader than they were one or two decades ago. Access to learning in terms of media you can google and online courses that are available are way beyond what they once were.

Even within your current organisation – getting to hear about opportunities outside your current role, team or department is much easier now due to tech improvements…all of these give you options for learning that haven’t existed in this way until recently. And that means that you can keep developing, keep learning, keep your skills relevant, all of which is super important for you to feel that it is you in control of your career and not anyone else.

Keep exploring your career possibilities

My fourth tip I’ve already mentioned – keep on exploring your career possibilities. Be creative, be open-minded, try not to squash those ideas that you somehow don’t really think of as viable career options. Ask yourself how could they become options for you? Are they things you could do if you had one or two days a week not doing the work you’re currently doing now?

What would be the trade-offs and the pay-offs if you were to make that happen. And keep revisiting these ideas, letting go of those (for now) that won’t work but making a plan to come back to them when the time is right.  Keep on exploring your career options for your mental health, for your well-being, for your resilience, because you never know when the unexpected may come along.

Own your career story

Lastly, I want to encourage you to own your career story. Whatever your CV says, whatever decisions you’ve taken, they are YOUR decisions and they made sense to you at the time that you made them. So when you’re talking to people about your career up to now and your future career, tell your story like you mean it. Be confident – no one has the same career story as you, no one has made the same decisions as you for the same reasons – and know that however you put it into words, it will be interesting as long as you tell it in an authentic, real and personal way.

We humans are wired towards storytelling and story listening, so make sure you’ve got yours nailed.

Closing thoughts – the ladder or the squiggle?

And that’s my tips for managing your career, whatever shape it takes – ladder or squiggle or both: build a language around your strengths, work your network…beyond the obvious, keep learning and make it personal, keep exploring your career possibilities and own your career story.

Thanks on this cast to Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper for their great work on squiggly careers and please enjoy exploring your career possibilities. Till next time, stay strong.