The new career ladder

I have been working around Millennials in startups in over the last 3 years and I have come to see that the profound needs of this generation, coupled with the inherent structure, pace and environment of startups have shifted the traditional vision of the career ladder.

The characteristics of Millennials are well known (see for example):

  • Their central aspiration is to advance and grow personally,
  • They want to be listened to and see their opinion valued,
  • They want to provide valuable contributions to the firm,
  • Uninhibited, they want to create their own rules,
  • They don’t think you need experience to be experienced.

And these naturally translate into their expectations within their work-space (see for example among other studies):

  • 86% think they will reach the most senior position of their company and 54% the top position,
  • 52% choose an employer using the career progression in the company as the main decision driver, ahead of a competitive salary,
  • 23% measure success by promotion,
  • Most of them want to develop themselves continuously and will jump job to do so without hesitation if not provided the opportunity in the short term.

In practice, I see these characteristics expressing themselves as follows.

A title for each, no meaning for anyone

While most of them just do the job that is being asked of them, this generation needs recognition by promotion. And startups have provided this to the extreme. Firstly startups have completely disrupted the notion of titles. Indeed, nowadays it is the norm to see people that are Head of, Manager of, while being in their first job, and while being a one (wo)man team. In turn, this has led to the young workforce asking for Senior Manager positions after 2 years, while it might take 10 years to get to such position in a traditional company. The reason is that we mistake functional responsibilities with managerial responsibilities. A manager is a person that traditionally manages people, a team. Today a manager is someone that manages…his/her work stream. 
As such, the career ladder is biased from the start as we accustom these young generations to feel responsible for larger perimeters than is the reality.
Being director of marketing of a startup of 20 persons, managing a budget of 10 k€/month with an intern has nothing to do with being director of Marketing in a nationwide company spending millions over all marketing channels. However I notice this generation fails to appreciate the gap in experience they need to fill to advance in such positions.

Why does this generation aspire to titles? Because it wants to be recognized and valued. And in a world of social media where personal branding is becoming the norm, you need people to identify your value at a glance in order to pop out of the crowd. I hear many times my young colleagues telling me that one’s title is important because recruiter look at their CV only 20 seconds, so titles is the only mean they have to « stand out».

Talent war: The reason we arrived to such biased situation

It is harder and harder to find good candidates, and even harder to retain them as they aspire towards developing themselves and rapidly climbing the ladder. However, how do you promote all your talents when most of them want to reach the top and you have only 1 CEO position (and she/he is not leaving!)? There is not enough room up the ladder, even in young companies, to satisfy everyone’s aspiration.
Indeed, while a very young company grows horizontally (i.e. by expanding its perimeter and range), it soon has to develop vertically and include more layers to its structure to cope with the wider perimeter of its core functions. At this stage a company can accommodate the need for responsibilities of the workforce as a young promising individuals will see the possibility to have interns below him or her and soon full time freshmen etc. But very quickly the vertical growth stops and that is when climbing the ladder becomes harder, as the only natural way to do so is for someone above you to leave their position. To counter that, managers devised a simple, cost efficient answer: the title incentive. To retain talent let’s give them a title that identifies them to the outside world as higher in the ladder than their true responsibilities dictate. This dichotomy was perpetuated to such levels that nowadays titles are actually meaningless: if everyone can be a senior marketing manager after 3 years of experience, how can they be compared with the senior marketing manager that did this job for 20 years?
Worse, it is not rare to see some of the young workers identifying their capabilities to their title; which means that they de-facto can exercise their job in any company - whatever the size.

This phenomenon has also been accelerated as Millennials want to be promoted quickly and most of the time ask for a promotion every year. Senior manager at 28, director at 30, VP at 33 and then what?

We created a generation of workers that is unable to understand the value of a ladder. It means that hiring managers need to tackle this issue seriously and look for solutions, a model, that allows this generation to feel valued and recognized while re-establishing a regular rhythm of progression in one’s career. The incapability of an organization to answer this question will inevitably lead to their talents running away one by one as they reach what they feel is a glass ceiling.
In light of this, it is critical for managers, both in young as well as in more traditional companies, to address these needs, to emerge as attractors in the talent war that has already begun. Especially because Generation Z are following in the footsteps of Millenials.

Ladder³: A new perspective on the ladder

In a world where the word manager has lost its meaning, I suggest to introduce more dimensions to the ladder.

Indeed, traditional ladders mix managerial responsibilities with distance from the CEO. While this ambiguity is valid in big companies where pyramidal structure reproduces the same ratio Manager/Employees in almost all levels, this is not the case in most of young companies where flat structures are the norm. So let’s decouple distance to the CEO (let’s call it Z, N-Z giving the position of an employee) from managerial responsibilities (which we will call Y). By doing this we just formalize what is already a reality everywhere: you do not need to go up the ladder to progress in your career, you can just manage a bigger team.

Now let’s open a new dimension in the career space: the functional perimeter one, which we will in turn call X. If the 2 first dimensions are easily quantifiable, this one is more subjective. Indeed, we could imagine that it is the number of specializations a person is responsible for. For example in marketing, a person responsible for Paid Social will have X = 1, someone in charge of SEM and native advertisement on top will have X = 3 etc. However depending on the function or the company, the specializations can have different importance due to the weight of each in the budget or revenue. Thus one could even imagine a 4th axis representing this value but for the sake of simplicity we will omit it in the rest of this article.

Breaking down the ladder

Now that we unfolded our career ladder, employees that were evolving in a one-dimensional ladder become free to evolve along a 3-dimensional ladder (ladder³). This do not revolutionize what already exists, but by formalizing the career evolution no longer by a vertical path but by a multidimensional path, one removes the invalid correlation of career progression and verticality. And one removes the burgeoning desire for Millenials to reach the top. There is no longer “A” top if you noticed. This is a cube because even a CEO can take larger responsibilities in terms of perimeter and number of employees.

Does this solve all the issues? No, of course not. This generation is still working on a higher frequency of promotion and increasing compensation assumptions. However, expanding dimensions offers a tool to managers to develop career paths and learning opportunities that can be identified as progression more easily. And this should reduce the biased usage of Z-axis and Y-axis title to satisfy young workers. However, one would need to formalize the nature of the titles paving the progression on each axis. Because we won’t change this generation, they will still need to validate their progression, being it horizontal or vertical, by a title. But by introducing new « flavors » we have a chance at re-normalizing the career ladder and giving it back its meaning.