How do you move up the corporate ladder? That question has obsessed generations of executives – and Cathy Benko, Vice Chairman of Deloitte LLP, thinks it may be harming your business. In an interview following up on a conversation we had as panelists at Deloitte’s recent ONTalent summit, Benko noted that in an era where jobs are being invented (or becoming obsolete) faster than ever before, it’s a race for companies to find skilled employees. Using a ‘corporate ladder’ framework, she says, ignores a “huge structural shift in the workplace” and may be costing you talent. “If you look through the lens of the ‘corporate ladder,’” she says, “once someone is off the ladder, you’re not looking to the left or right for great talent that can cultivated for the future. It’s a very old-style, dominant-logic thinking that suggests [career development] has got to happen one way, and that turns off a lot of women who ultimately feel they need to flip a switch and say, ‘I’m in’ or ‘I’m out.’”
But it’s not just mothers of young children who are looking for a different path in the workplace. Even Baby Boomers – renowned for their hard-charging dedication – are increasingly seeking new options. “Early Boomers, as they approach the tail end of their careers, are looking for ways to continue to contribute,” she says. “They may not be in the same place as they were [at the beginning of their careers], and there’s an increased understanding for themselves, their kids, and their team members” that a more flexible model may work better.
Benko’s proposal? The corporate lattice, a concept she popularized in her book, co-authored with Molly Anderson, The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work. “Now we’re at a point of discontinuity, where people’s careers develop differently,” says Benko. “It’s not one-size-fits-all, and you have to be pretty clear about how things work today, as opposed to the way things used to work.”
In a corporate lattice model, careers are allowed to move sideways (you migrate from engineering to marketing) or pause temporarily (while you take care of a sick parent), instead of facing constant ‘up or out’ pressure. Alternately, you may want to double down, travel extensively, and work massive overtime in another phase of your career in over to advance more quickly. The key is, there is no longer one prescribed path – rather, your career progress is more flexible and works in concert with other parts of your life.
So if your company has a flex-time program, isn’t that enough? Benko says no. “It’s not sufficient for a lot of reasons,” she says. “It’s a Band-Aid and doesn’t at all address the underlying issues. Flex-time is viewed as a workaround, not part of the system. What we’re saying [with the corporate lattice] is there’s a better way, a system that can accommodate all types of arrangements with one rule set, not a combination of custom arrangements that don’t scale.”
What can an executive do to prepare for an uncertain future, as the traditional corporate ladder fades? Benko says the key is to be flexible and develop transferable skills. “You really need to have a much sharper focus on creating a portfolio of skills that can be ported over into new fields as they emerge,” she says. “We all have to get very comfortable with retooling, and understanding your career will likely not be linear. At the end of the day, you can’t count on any one particular future playing out. You have to think, ‘What positions me for the way I think things are going to work?’ – but make sure that in your toolkit, there are other skills, experiences, and networks you can tap into to create an alternative future for yourself.”
Ultimately, says Benko, the secret to a fulfilling career path is a collaboration between the individual and their company: “Especially as we see the skills gap emerging, from an employer perspective, there’s a lot of value in thinking about how to make careers work better for those you most want to attract and retain.”
What are your strategies for finding – and keeping – top-level talent at your company?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on July 12, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.