Plotting Your Career Success: Ladders Versus Expanders

Career Races are mostly run in a Zig-Zag Line

The last time I met Ray Gamell was about 3 years ago in Abu Dhabi. I was passing through the city on a different mission and called to see him for a chat about Ethihad Airways. I’ve admired Ray for many years and was doubly delighted when he was recently announced as the interim CEO of the airline, having been promoted from the role of HR Director. Ray demonstrated leadership from his earliest days in the Irish Army, in Intel, Ulster Bank and, more recently, in the Middle East. It’s nice to see the Good Guys winning (at least sometimes).

Formal Apprenticeship: Contrast that with a conversation last week with another excellent HR practitioner. A new HR Director had been appointed – an internal promotion, but someone from outside the function. My lunch-buddy was making the point that this just wouldn’t happen in finance or marketing. His thesis: people ‘serve an apprenticeship’ within a function and get rewarded by seizing the top spot on the functional ladder at some point. Accountants eventually become Financial Comptrollers, then Finance Directors and so on. But was he correct? Should you stay within your own discipline or ‘jump across and do something else?

Pfizer Leadership: For the past 3 years, Cathy Buffini and I have been working with the senior engineers across Pfizer globally. There’s no ‘parish pump politics’ at play here. It’s definitely not about who you know. It’s not even about what you know. It’s all about what you deliver. As part of this engagement, we’ve interviewed a range of senior executives (engineers and others) about their careers – the good, the bad and the ugly. What worked. What didn’t. Tripwires that could have been avoided. Key Point: So many of the engineers ‘crossed-over’ into other functions (Manufacturing, Quality, HR) that we lost count. And they also moved internationally. In other words, they were expanders (moving sideways as parallel opportunites presented) – not ladderers (waiting for the next more senior position in engineering to open up). The route up the corporate mountain is often a zig-zag climb, seldom a straight line.

Your Career: In thinking about your own career, you might do well to consider the ultimate destination, sometimes referred to as the ‘step after next.’ Like playing chess, you need to think two or even three moves ahead (in the corporate world, the pieces move around the chessboard suprisingly quickly). Every year (for the past 6 years) MERC Partners publish an ‘Executive Expectations’ survey which always makes for interesting reading. In the latest (2017) survey 59% of executives stated they were much more open to switching roles. People are starting to ‘get it.’

One Caveat: But, there’s one thing to be mindful of. According to Sir William Osler (a Canadian physician,  one of the icons of modern medicine): “The best way to take care of tomorrow, is to do today’s job superbly well.” Even if your current role is somewhat modest and falls short of being a dream job, you need to over-deliver on this. Career success is the ability to manage a dual-timeframe. Planning for tomorrow – while making sure that you deliver today. My personal belief is that the ‘best time to apply for a job – is one year before it’s advertised.’ In other words, you apply for a promotional role, in advance, by delivering a brilliant performance on the job you hold today.

Alternative Strategy: Of course, you can always pursue an alternative strategy. You can tell your boss: “I’m underperforming in my current role, because it doesn’t really suit me. But hey, as soon as I get promoted I will ‘over-perform’ in the new (more interesting, more complex, better paid) role.”  Good luck with making that sale!

Get Wide: In thinking about the future, don’t just see tomorrow as a linear expansion from what you studied or where you are today. Don’t allow a study choice you made as a teenager, set the boundaries on your life. There’s a world of career possibility out there. Go ‘wide’ and grab it.


PS Lighter Notes: This week’s offerings are from Larry McGivern (look away now if you are of a nervous disposition!).


If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,

If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,

If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,

If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,

If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,

If you can conquer tension without medical help,

If you can relax without alcohol,

If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,

Then You Are Probably The Family Dog!


A heavy-set girl served me in McDonald’s at lunchtime.  She said: ‘Sorry about the wait’.

I said: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll find a way to lose it eventually’.


A 10-year-old Irish boy stands crying at the side of the road.  A man passing asks:

‘What’s wrong, lad?’

The boy says: ‘Me ma died this morning.’

‘Oh bejaysus,’ the man says.  ‘Do you want me to call Father O’Reilly?’

The boy replies: ‘No thanks mister. Sex is the last thing on my mind at the moment.’

Air Stewardess (from Aidan Cahill):  The blonde flight attendant saw a suspicious looking couple on board, so she reported it to the Captain immediately.

“Sir, I think we have a case of human trafficking! There is a very
pretty, hot  female passenger on board, who looks quite
frightened. The man she is with is fat and looks like a
lecher, very sullen, mean and dangerous!”

The captain responds: “Patricia, I’ve told you this before. This is Air Force One…”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.




About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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