Climbing Career Trees Instead of Ladders

An article by Gail Kastning.

Climbing the career ladder has never fit with how I see my work life. I don’t lack motivation or the desire to succeed. Rather, I pioneer and innovate. I need to climb outward not just upward and I like options and opportunities to work in ways that fit with how I want to live my life. However, I’ve second-guessed myself and asked, “Why can’t I find comfort and security in the idea of a career ladder?”

I blame my parents. I grew up the daughter of portfolio careerists who streamed income from various sources. Before the portfolio career concept was trendy, my father and his wife made a living from their grain farm and three side businesses. My mother and her husband made a living from a grain and cattle farm, one seasonal job, three part-time jobs and a variety of side hustles. I had role models who indirectly taught me to diversify my income and even though they suggested I get a “nice, cushy, secure, 9-to-5 job with a steady paycheque and a good pension,” they never worked like that themselves.

Reasons why the climb is no longer as appealing 

The career ladder has had a long life. All we have to do is search online to find countless articles teaching us how to climb it quickly and other articles advising us how to successfully survive the climb. Although it’s still a way of working that has provided solid careers, the ladder has come under scrutiny.

Randstad Canada predicts 35% of the Canadian workforce will be contingent by 2025. There’s also a change in how workers want to work. Many of us no longer want to put in the long hours it takes to climb to the top, not to mention the fact that not everyone wants to be a leader. In addition, we have learned how to define success in other ways, and with new workforce models allowing us to work differently and technology giving us the option of working from anywhere in the world, we now have interesting options.

Creating resilient, agile workers that adapt to change

My parents were the epitome of resilient, agile workers who were able to quickly adapt to changes in the farming industry in the 1980s. Resiliency was fostered through a willingness to diversify income streams through side hustles, working salaried jobs off the farm or starting additional businesses. Our family side hustles ranged from making pickled eggs and selling them in the local pub, to commercial ice fishing in -30-degree winter weather, food catering for local events and painting homes. At one point, my father took on a side hustle working with the local plumber and when the plumber left town, my dad saw an opportunity, went back to school in his 40s, and added plumbing and heating to his resume because the work fit around the farming season. It was this type of agile, entrepreneurial thinking that helped my family maintain their way of life.

Today, the changing nature of work is demanding that we develop a similar resilient, agile mindset. Whether it’s out of choice or out of necessity, workers across the globe are diversifying their income and working differently.  A 2016 McKinsey Global Institute report, Independent Work: Choice, Necessity and the Gig Economyoutlines the growth in independent workers in the US and Europe. People are participating in the gig economy because they are either “financially strapped” and needing extra income or they are taking advantage of the opportunities to earn extra money.

Side hustles are also growing and are now classified as a subset of the gig economy. They are entrepreneurial in nature, a creative outlet and can also be a smart career strategy. A CBS Eye on Money segment called Why Side Hustles are on the Rise featured the growth in side hustles in America. Seen as a residual outcome of the former recession, side hustles are still on the rise with participants flexing entrepreneurial muscles or growing passion projects.

Highly skilled executives are also jumping off the ladder. Michael Greenspan, in his article for Harvard Business Review, How to Launch a Successful Portfolio Careerprovides advice on how to move from the corporate ladder to a more organic portfolio career of consulting, contract work, writing and speaking, among other options. Income streaming has become not just an idyllic daydream but a realistic option.

The Tree Approach™ 

In my parents’ world of work, there wasn’t a career ladder with rigid rungs to climb. There was work to do, a living to make and agile was just something you became. Today, we’re expected to have the same approach. But does the career ladder support agility?

After many years of watching my family work unconventionally and working out of the box myself, I began to wonder how I became so highly adaptable and agile. Was it because, like my parents, I didn’t have a career ladder inside my head? What did I envision as a model for my career? I decided to capture how I saw, organized and managed my career. I put it to paper and it came out looking like a tree.

Over the past three years, I have piloted The Tree Approach™ and it has resonated with clients of varying occupational backgrounds. It is both a visual model and a process of seeing our work life in a new way. Unlike the career ladder that can be swept away in an economic downturn, The Tree Approach™ has us build capacity and resiliency by developing a strong root system. We then learn to explore new workforce trends and opportunities in varying economic conditions. We learn how to adopt broader strategies for managing our careers in a global workforce that is evolving because it provides us with a new framework for how we envision possibilities. The model also supports long-term sustainability by developing skills in strategizing our careers throughout changing seasons of our lives and changes in the evolving world of work.

Rather than seeking stability and security in a career ladder that can blow away in the wind, we create a solid tree with a root system that can weather storms and career strategy that can grow in any climate.

Gail Kastning is a Certified Career Strategist. She is a portfolio careerist who streams income from consulting, contracting, coaching, speaking, passive income and rental property. Her company is called PURPOSEFUL CAREERS.

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