Rock Climbing
ATD Blog

Consider the Career Climbing Wall

Monday, March 21, 2016

Organizational belt-tightening and delayering during the past several years has eliminated many leadership positions. The upper layers of the organizational pyramid, which have always been slim, have become a mere sliver.

Similarly, the predictable progression from one established position to the next has given way to new career patterns. These are more fluid, flexible, and responsive to the needs of the business and the individual.

We must therefore say goodbye to limiting career paths and ladders, and say hello to a new metaphor: the career climbing wall.

To develop your career, or anyone else’s, in the modern workplace, you need to think differently about how careers progress—through a series of moves around, down, up, over, and around again. Today’s career development looks more like a rock-climbing wall than a ladder or path.

The career climbing wall is expansive, offering a wide selection of spots to explore and enjoy, and a nearly unlimited combination of moves in every direction—toward your vision of career success.

The climbing wall metaphor only works if we shift our mindset about what career advancement really means in today’s environment. If you’re like most people, you’ve been brainwashed into thinking that advancement means moving up in the organization: taking on more responsibility, managing larger staffs, and earning more money.


Although there may be fewer opportunities closer to the top, vertical moves remain important and necessary. Organizations thrive when they have a pipeline filled with skilled internal candidates prepared to take on the challenges of the next level.

But up is not the only way to go for employees looking for growth. In fact, in these days of flatter organizations, a lateral move is often the new promotion. Sideways isn’t sidelined; it’s quite the opposite. Increasingly, becoming knowledgeable about more of the organization is an asset.

Advancement today means moving closer to your personal definition of career success. Onward and upward has been replaced by forward and toward. Employees need to figure out what advancement means to them, how they personally define career success, and what they’re advancing toward. Then they need to talk about their ideas and concerns with their managers to gain their support.


As a result, some of the most important conversations managers will have with employees involve clarifying their definition of career success. A profound and thoughtful dialogue can be sparked by asking simple questions such as:

  • Where do you see yourself in two, five, or 10 years? 
  • What do you want to be doing? 
  • How do you want to be doing it? 
  • With whom and under what circumstances?

There is no cookie-cutter approach for the customized plan that advances each employee’s career goals.
Managers who want to bring career development into the 21st century need to update and transform how they help others grow. Losing the ladder and adopting the mental model of the climbing wall is the first step.

Like what you read? Join us at the ATD 2016 International Conference & Exposition in Denver, CO, May 22-25 to hear Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni speak.

Register now!

About the Author

Beverly Kaye is recognized internationally as one of the most knowledgeable and practical professionals in the areas of career development, employee engagement, and retention. Her contribution to the field includes the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Love `Em or Lose `Em: Getting Good People to Stay, now in its sixth edition. Her recent books include Up Is Not the Only Way and Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, which helps managers blend career conversations into their everyday routine. In 2018, ATD honored Beverly with a Lifetime Achievement Award recognizing her contributions to the profession. The Association of Learning Professionals honored her with their 2018 Thought Leadership Award. In 2019, Beverly was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute for Management Studies.

About the Author

Julie Winkle Giulioni is a champion for workplace growth and development and helps leaders optimize talent and potential within their organizations with consulting, keynote speeches, and training.

Julie is the author of Promotions Are So Yesterday: Redefine Career Development. Help Employees Thrive. and co-author of the international bestseller Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want. She is a regular columnist for Training Industry magazine and SmartBrief and contributes articles on leadership, career development, and workplace trends to publications including The Economist.

Named by Inc. magazine as a Top 100 Leadership Speaker, Julie’s in-person and virtual keynotes and presentations offer fresh, inspiring, yet actionable strategies for leaders who are interested in their own growth as well as supporting the growth of others.

Her firm, DesignArounds, creates and offers training to organizations worldwide and has earned praise and awards from Human Resource Executive magazine’s Top Ten Training Products, New York Film Festival, Brandon Hall, and Global HR Excellence Council.

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.