Mixing Metaphors: Career Ladders, Playgrounds, and Beehives

Today’s career development is not about finding “a” (singular) path or climbing up a ladder. Many (most?) careers today are much more flexible or modular. They will grow and change over time, as you both vertically move up in responsibilities and scope but also laterally to apply your skills and experience to new areas or in new ways.

Some people call this the career playground – where you move about your career doing whatever feels right for that moment in your life; there’s no predetermined path or “right” way to play on the equipment. While I agree there’s not really ladders anymore, I don’t use the playground metaphor.

There is something about equating play (implying fun and unstructured time) and work (which is often anything but either of those two qualities) that is icky. Uncomfortable. Incongruous. Whatever you want to call it. And part of that goes back to my own strong work value that I reserve work for work and play for my personal life.

So I tend to think of this assembling of disparate experiences and jobs into “a” career more as a beehive. A worker bee builds the hive, and that hive changes through the seasons and evolves over time. Another reason I prefer my beehive metaphor is that unlike the playground metaphor – where the equipment is selected by and laid out by others, and fixed, in a beehive, your career isn’t something that is already laid out for you. You (and any other members of your colony – your family members and loved ones) have control over how you move through it, build it, and remodel it. You get to decide its shape, its size, abandon one hive when it no longer suits you, etc. And finally, it’s organic – it’s created and shaped by you, using your innate and natural skills, interests, and talents.

In other words: your career isn’t something that happens to you. You have agency. You have choices. You can control what it looks and feels like for you. You can create your career with purpose and reshape it with intention.

Why is it important to remember this? Well, for one, the career ladder is becoming less common, for a number of reasons. Many organizations (yes, even higher ed) have either already undergone or soon will undergo something called broadbanding in which promotions become ever more inaccessible. In a broadbanding approach, lateral opportunities are instead emphasized over moving upwards vertically within your silo. Smaller organizations simply don’t have many opportunities to move vertically; even in my giant department of 1200 staff, it can take a decade or more to move into a mid-level management role. Some kinds of work require you to grow skills and abilities, rather than deepen your subject area expertise. And moving laterally can be a HUGE advantage to you, positioning you with the knowledge necessary to be able to move vertically (drawing upon your unique experience and knowledge of cross-functional projects and team dynamics).

Another reason is that, as we all know all too well, I think very few careers are recession- or disruption-proof. So even in careers where there remains a vertical progression, that may not always be the case. It’s only inevitable that some of the ceilings within a job family could eventually collapse or get wiped out as organizations’ needs, priorities, and strategies evolve.

Third, so many workers nowadays are fiercely independent and don’t buy into the whole “climbing the ladder” mentality. Increasingly these days, many can honestly admit they have zero aspirations for leadership roles. Maybe it’s because the thought of it stresses them out; or that they realize the work-life balance sacrifices they would have to make. Or maybe they just want to be masters of their craft and not managers. I do think some academics are extremely suited to the vertical career ladder, those who have an innate need to learn ev-er-y-thing we can about a subject, all of its ins and outs, examined from every angle. If that’s you, then own it. Be it. Use your hive intentionally to strategically propel yourself upward.

Other academics – like me – are better suited for what I call “garden careers.” This is where you flit around like a bee, pollinating one flower that catches your eye at one moment or season and moving on to another when ready. In this model, you give yourself the opportunity to explore a variety of types of interests depending on your needs within whatever season of life you find yourself. Combined with your insatiable curiosity as an academic, this can be very fruitful and fulfilling as you build a career based lifelong learning, cultivating new interests, and growth into new fields or subjects. Another reason this metaphor resonates with me is its physicality. When you add in societal shifts like how many people are increasingly paying a health price for sedentary office-based work, I’m increasingly finding examples of colleagues who grapple with and ultimate find ways to combine part-time knowledge-based jobs with more physical jobs (in restaurants, nursing, personal training, etc.).

So while the hive is under your control, and allows you to move and make your career what you want, you also will have to tend your career garden, as thereĀ are always going to be factors outside your control. It takes time to find the right place to plant a garden, to get it started, to cultivate the right mix of flowers, and to continuously weed and improve it over time. So you will most likely draw upon a number of approaches throughout your career.