Climbing the ladder skilfully and avoiding the traps

The ladder of your corporate career stands in front of you, ready for you to climb carefully up the rungs to success. Somewhere though, you know a few snakes will be lurking… tread upon one of those and the slide back down can be frustrating, inconvenient, and even painful.

We are pretty sure you’ll have been given loads of good advice about how to avoid those slippery snakes – from your boss, your colleagues, the HR guys, all the leadership books and Harvard articles, even your Mother! Ever felt like the advice is overwhelming, overly complicated and sometimes even completely contradictory?

We have, so we’ve boiled it down to a few simple tips for climbing ladders confidently:


Define your ladder: Ask 10 people what their definition of success is and you’ll probably get 10 completely different answers. Success is a uniquely personal thing, so make sure you climb the ladder to your success and not someone else’s idea of success. Your ladder may disappear up into the stratosphere in a dizzyingly vertical climb or it may stop at the first cloud so that you can stop and admire the view for a while. Being clear what your own ladder looks like gives you an opportunity to work out the speed of your climb and the sacrifices you are happy to make as you go. Sounds easy right? But how the hell do you get that clarity? What if you don’t really know what your version of success looks like? Read on….


Know what motivates you and be true to it: How do you know what really motivates you? If, like many people, you simply have no real idea, then you’ll need to give it a bit more thought. There are no right and wrong answers so we suggest first and foremost a bit of honesty … be really honest with yourself about what drives you. We don’t mean ‘adding value’ and ‘making a difference’. Who doesn’t want to do that? We mean, what on earth are you doing this FOR? This doesn’t have to be profound or noble by the way – corporate life is generally not a vocation and therefore it’s quite likely that your reasons are not going to be too altruistic. You might be doing it to be able to send your kids to private school and then finance them through University, or to buy that sleek top of the range sports car or maybe a holiday home in Provence? Write down your WHYs and be prepared to change them as your life changes – which it inevitably will. The important thing is, at any given time, you have more than a vague idea about why you get out of bed on a cold dark January morning. What if you genuinely can’t find any WHYs? Stick to the honesty game – if you are only about to climb the ladder because you think someone somewhere expects it of you, then maybe it might be wise to think about not doing it at all? It might just make you very miserable and there are many other ways to live a happy, and fulfilling life.


Sunshine and Sacrifices: It’s completely unrealistic to expect sunshine and roses all the way. There will be many days throughout your working life when storm clouds gather and you need to tip the balance in favour of the office. If your end game is worth having it will always be worth putting in some extra effort to get you there. That extra effort will also get you noticed and might even allow you to jump a few rungs up the ladder. As Samuel Goldwyn said ‘the harder I work , the luckier I get’. Our advice is to try to set some boundaries early on and manage your life accordingly. For example, you can let it be known that you are happy to work late Monday – Wednesday but that means you definitely won’t be hanging around the office late on a Friday. Note, if you do set boundaries the one person who has to abide by them to make them work is you! If you don’t respect them no one else will. And if school sports day or your wedding anniversary is the one unmissable event of the year for you, then exercise your right to a days leave and book it well in advance. Take control of the things you can control, because there will be times when you simply can’t. That’s just how it is, make your peace with it.


Go with the flow: It’s OK to go with the flow, which means you don’t necessarily have to have a detailed career plan. We reckon that not having a plan makes you far more open to all those interesting opportunities and possibilities, which if you had a plan, you would probably never entertain. That’s not to say that no plan = lack of ambition. You know what drives you (see above) – that’s what you are aiming for, your definition of success, just be flexible about the route you take to get there. It’s these unknown and unforeseen rungs of your ladder that are likely to turn you into a more rounded individual. You never know, you might even have a lot more fun than you ever thought possible. How many people do you know who have said ‘ If you had told me 10 years ago I’d be doing this, I’d never have believed you’? These are the people who go with the flow.


Do things that really challenge (or even terrify) you … and don’t worry about not having a clue. This is perfectly normal and although uncomfortable for a while, within 3 months you’ll have many more clues than you started out with. Doing this marks you out as someone who is prepared to step outside of your comfort zone, and will give you a massive sense of exhilaration (even though you may well mistake this for heart stopping adrenaline at times) as well as a huge sense of achievement and confidence – and climbing higher requires confidence.


Get yourself sponsored… No we don’t mean for the office 10K run, we mean for what you do every day. A sponsor is someone who will support you and challenge you in equal measure. Someone who will see things in you you won’t necessarily see in yourself and provide the opportunities for you to speed up the ladder. So how do you get one? Please do not go round asking ‘will you sponsor me?’ True and lasting sponsorship has to be earnt, through hard work and effective delivery with a generous splash of loyalty thrown into the mix. It should be a mutually beneficial relationship and its generally one that grows over time, without a formal exchange of contracts as such. But you’ll know you are being sponsored when you get recommended for roles, talent programmes, secondments, travel, plus of course when you get a few of the terrifying challenges thrown your way….yes, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.


…but don’t seek exclusivity One great sponsor is good, more than one is very good. Sponsors, being usually quite senior people, tend to move on, up or out. They may or may not take you with them. You may or may not want to go. There are many people who have basked in the reflective glow of sponsorship to suddenly find it pretty chilly when they look around and find their key sponsor is no longer there. Work out who ALL your key stakeholders are, get to know them and really importantly, always but always, follow through with great delivery that builds their confidence in you. That way you should be able to widen your sponsor network.


Always, always, employ people who are better than you OK, we know that this is sometimes not the easiest thing to do but it’s a very good idea for three very good reasons

  • You simply can’t be the best at everything (sorry!)
  • You need people in your team who want to do all the things you hate doing and are good at them – this tends to help you get better results than if you employ a team of ‘mini-me’s’
  • You can only move to the next rung if there are people ready to move to the rung you are on. It’s a no brainer.

Be generous Look down often and give a helping hand to those who are climbing up behind you. Be a great role model and make it your business to mentor and coach others. Be generous with your time and your support. Very few people get to the top of the ladder by being utterly selfish (driven yes, selfish no).

Finally, if you do step on a snake remember that there are many before you who will have done so and lived to tell the tale. You can recover from a setback –go and seek feedback and advice, reflect on it however painful, learn from the experience and then get back on the ladder. In all likelihood you’ll be a more accomplished climber.

Sue Saville

Advisory Board

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