Not Ladders But Impact Radius: Reframing Our Mental Model of Career Advancement

I’m often asked by those whom I support what it will take to be promoted.

The trouble with the promotion mental model is its dependence on external factors that aren’t fully within our control, specifically, the need for and capacity of an organization for layers of management.

The mental model of promotions might have been an effective KPI in quantifiable, mechanistic work from our industrial past, but knowledge or intellectual work – this is not quite the best phrasing, but I’m hoping you get my gist – isn’t easily quantifiable and is highly variable. And how and what each of us brings to this work adds another layer of complexity that’s hard to quantify.

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge offers us a path forward. The path forward is a sense of purpose, of clarifying what’s important to us. The passage below is from the Personal Mastery chapter, and I think it succinctly captures how we might frame our questions around our career and practice.

I propose that the path isn’t a vertical, hierarchical one of climbing ladders but one of growing an interconnected network of skills, understanding, relationships, etc. We tend to ask how we might be promoted, or we chase job titles and money; asking why we want those things might light a more fulfilling way forward.