Career: Up or Across

I was flattered years back when the vice chairman of the company from which I had just resigned called me to his office to coax a reversal of my decision. The company was very large; he was very important; I was young and ambitious.

He said that, unbeknown to me, management had tagged me as a fast-riser, and should I change my mind about leaving, the first career development step in my ascent to becoming possibly the company’s youngest vice president at age 50 was about to happen: a move from public relations in Pennsylvania to raw materials sales in Texas. I saw my future flash before me. I left the company.


You can answer that. Put yourself in my place. Actually many of you reading this are in that same place now or could be – or were there once. Choosing a career direction often has to do with longitude versus latitude, with moving upward versus sideways, with a ladder versus scaffolding. Climbing the corporate ladder is exhilarating but taxing; scaffolding is relatively safe but not as titillating.

If you’re up for climbing the ladder, I recommend three items you will want to strap on: an oxygen bottle, a recorder, and a breathalyzer.

Oxygen Bottle

During an Arizona vacation, my athletic high school age son guilted me into a bonding venture of climbing what looked like a steep but, I thought, relatively short hill. Half-way up, after climbing aggressively, I was gasping the thin air and envisioning my body being air-lifted down.

The corporate ladder does not look that high at first, and, besides, you’re in upbeat mental shape. You expect to climb quickly, and you might even have a strategy for by-passing a few rungs.

However, each step – each stressful assignment you undertake – steals a portion of your energy. And all those conference dinners and customer nightcaps add body ballast. Your climbing legs get weary, your vision foggier, your hands sweatier. So, you hold the ladder more tightly, your work more rigidly, and your relationships more cagily because you don’t want to give up the progress you’ve made.

As you near the top, you sense your close friends getting fewer. Good thing you have family (You remember them, don’t you?)


  • Stay toned-up physically and mentally;
  • climb deliberately but sensibly;
  • stop occasionally to breathe; and
  • at every vantage point, be sure you can see and talk with your significant others.


The climb is difficult enough, but then there’s the crowd near the bottom. Maybe, you think, you could haul yourself up and over their backs to the next level. These folks are not that significant, you tell yourself.

The climbers further up are fewer but much more competitive, more skilled at climbing, and less predictable about their next moves. But some can’t or won’t move up any further, which blocks your ascent. What are you going to do, throw them off the ladder? C’mon, you wouldn’t do that, would you? You simply have to wait. But you’re a patient person, right?


  • Along the upward journey, pull out your recorder to remind yourself of who you were at the bottom and note who you’re becoming at every rung.
  • Remember to take note of those you have passed by because, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, you might meet them again on the way down.


Should you reach the top or even get close to it, you will be drunk with the joy of success – and, after the hangover, swooning with power. At first you will be obsequious, eager to convince others that you are a team – though the team members are on different rungs, still climbing, and privately petitioning you to toss down a rope.

There’s no more climbing for you, however. Anything you want, someone else takes care of. Before long, you might just begin thinking you are entitled, irreplaceable, invincible, and even beloved.

And that means it’s time for a sobriety check.


  • Don’t even think about administering a breathalyzer reality test on yourself. You won’t believe you need it, and you won’t trust the results.
  • Get someone without a vested interest in your business to do it — someone who listens, can pick out your old self from the newly fabricated self, and can talk tough-love.

Now, about the scaffolding approach to career choices, I’m going to give you five indicators that you should ignore ladder-climbing and try scaffolding.

  1. You’ve clearly defined how you’re wired, and you want to deepen your knowledge and perfect your skills within a certain perimeter, like communication or engineering.
  2. You enjoy working with a few people for long periods of time on programs that achieve sustainable results.
  3. You realize that scaffolding can be elevated pretty much when you want – and that it takes two to pull the ropes and keep everything in balance.
  4. You occasionally want to lower the scaffolding, review what you did, learn lessons, and move back up.
  5. You don’t want to blame your spouse for your kids’ problems because you were never there.

Richard Skaare
Photo credit: sickmouthy


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