Climb a Tree, Not a Ladder

Posted on November 12, 2018

Wide life quote


Frequently I am asked to participate in panel discussions or give conference presentations on local government workforce trends and recruitment.  I’m gracefully in my early 40s, yet I’m asked to speak on behalf of my colleagues who are 10, 15 & 20 years younger.  I have another panel coming up.  The topic of the annual Route Fifty digital event on November 29 is “Overcoming Top Workforce Challenges in State and Local Government” and I’m excited to be representing both ELGL and my city on the panel.

I’ve been thinking about how to add a new perspective to this conversation, one that accurately reflects how I approach my career and one that describes what I’ve discussed with so many of my ELGL colleagues over the years.

Here’s what I have come up with:  We want to climb a tree, not a ladder.  We want a big, wide, winding life and that includes our careers.

One of the biggest differences in the workplace between the incoming and outgoing generations is the perception of career path and progression.  Largely as a result of pattern and precedent, the generation before us saw their careers as a progression up a ladder.  Quite the opposite, we seek a great big tree with lots of branches to explore.  This difference is, I believe, one of the main reasons the incoming generation catches slack for moving around too much, for being inpatient and for expecting more mobility and flexibility than the traditional ladder offered.

The quote from poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman is one that I live by in my personal life.  Recently I started recognizing that it is central to my professional life as well.

I had a conversation with one of my mentors earlier this year as I struggled through not being selected for a City Manager position I really wanted.  His wisdom was perfectly stated and perfectly timed, as usual.  He told me that maybe I was focusing on the wrong ladder.  That maybe my greatest contribution to public service right now wasn’t leading a single organization, but contributing to the profession and my colleagues in other ways.  I took his wisdom to heart.  I stopped applying for jobs that simply got me to the next step on the city administration ladder.  Instead, I started looking at and focusing on all the other ladders.

And I realized I’m not on a ladder.  I don’t want to be.  My career is a big, wide, strong, beautiful tree.  From where I am now, I can look around at all the varied branches I’ve climbed to get here.  And I can see around me and above me all of the other branches I want to explore.

I don’t want to get to the end of my career and find that I just climbed one ladder.  I want to have fully explored the whole tree.

That doesn’t mean that all of us who perceive our careers this way can’t be top level administrators.  It simply means that we are not necessarily interested a straight shot up a single ladder to get there.  So yes, we meander.  And yes, we get restless because we constantly seek to explore new things. No, we aren’t interested in “waiting our turn”. And yes, we will still get there – wherever we decide “there” is.  I argue we will be more creative, more compassionate and more collaborative when we do.  And we will bring with us a rich, diverse collection of experiences gathered from all of our other branches.

Listen in on November 28th and stayed tuned for my follow up ELGL post to learn how  I recommend organizations can adapt to put away the ladders.

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