This holiday weekend was the perfect occasion for some relaxation and reflection.  With a stomach full of turkey and plenty of travel time, I did some thinking about my past jobs.  Looking back over my career thus far, one of the most interesting dichotomies is that of ladder vs. non-ladder positions.

Let me explain.

When I started my career right out of college working in media planning, I was most definitely in a “ladder” career path.  Hired as an Assistant Media Planner, I had to pay my dues and slowly progress up the following path:

  • After one year of making very little money I was eligible for promotion to Media Planner;
  • As a Planner I had between two and three years before I could become eligible for promotion to Media Supervisor;
  • From there it was three to five more years before promotion to Associate Media Director (AMD);
  • Then four to eight more years before promotion to Group Media Director (GMD).

As a 22-year-old, sitting in a cubicle on West 33rd Street, I was looking down a very well-defined career path and I knew exactly what I needed to do over the next 10 – 17 years in order to progress (slowly but steadily) up the corporate ladder.

After four years in media planning (after having achieved the level of Media Supervisor), I changed roles in my agency, leaving the clearly defined media planning career path and diving into a non-ladder role in digital media analytics.

At the time (in 2010/2011), digital media analytics was becoming a very hot topic in the agency world.  Advertisers were becoming increasingly concerned with tracking the value of their digital media investment and were putting increased pressure on agencies to insure media dollars were spent wisely.  In order to stay competitive, my agency needed to launch a digital media analytics competency.

Media analytics, as a discipline, has been around for decades and first became popular during the rise of direct marketing/direct mail in the 70’s and 80’s.  However, digital media brought a lot of new elements to the practice of media analytics.  Digital advertising produced much more data that was easy to collect and more quickly available.  All over the country, ad agencies were pitching digital media analytics to clients as an added service – and I think that most of them, like me, quoted John Wannamaker in their pitch (the quote being, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”) stating that technology has now allowed us to truly know which advertising dollars are wasted.

Leading the digital media analytics competency for my agency was definitely a non-ladder role.  First of all, there were only about four people in the analytics group and they varied widely in skill and experience.  Unlike media planning there was no neatly established progression of titles, there was no established process for completing work, and I didn’t even have a clear idea of what work needed to be done.  It was way outside my comfort zone and filled with ambiguity.  When I made the transition from media planning to media analytics it made me feel very anxious and uneasy – but at the same time alive and excited.  While working in a “ladder” role, I came to work every day knowing exactly what I had to do and how much time I had before I got promoted to the next rung on the ladder.  I always felt like I was doing a good job, I knew exactly how I performed relative to my peers, and I absolutely hated it.  It was comfortable, yet maddening.  No matter what I did, I always knew that I had X more years before getting promoted and no amount of extra work could change that.  In the non-ladder role in media analytics, I controlled my own destiny.  The harder I worked, the faster I progressed and with no defined career path I could take on more responsibility as fast as I wanted to.

By now, I have come to terms with the realities of non-ladder roles.  They’re always ambiguous and challenging.  Usually about 50% of the time I feel like I’m totally failing and the other 50% of the time I feel like I’m doing extremely well.  Non-ladder roles rarely see the glory and recognition that ladder jobs see, but I’ve also found them to be some of the most important and influential roles – and they’re the place where I feel most self-actualized.

I vividly remember, back at my agency, the day of my first big client presentation in my new role leading digital media analytics.  I was quite anxious and shortly before my presentation a fit of nausea sent me to the restroom to splash some cold water on my face.  Looking up in the bathroom mirror I remember smiling, embracing the anxiety and silently deciding that I wanted to work only in non-ladder roles for the rest of my career.

Career Success Through Non-Ladder Paths
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  • Man, you had a cubicle? I’m in the same building now – working for IPG – and all I get is an open office.


    More broadly, I’ve always – inheriting this from my father – thought about roles in terms of how structured they were. The more unstructured, the more difficult – and in many cases the more valuable.

    I had the experience of observing, at college, the value of structure for the first time. I’m usually a pretty independent learner – I’d pull nonfiction books out of the library and read them for pleasure, and frequently preferred reading the textbook to, say, taking notes.

    However, the whole system of a college course is heavily structured. I don’t know if you’ve tried to learn something on your own, and struggled to understand what you didn’t know and what you should go figure out first. It’s a very hard thing to do, because everything looks confusing when you don’t understand anything.

    College courses provided a large amount of structure, and the professors added more – I recall feeling, a number of times, like knowledge was being drilled into my head. I didn’t need to do anything but sit there and receive.

    I’m doing more programming/development work now, and it’s the same thing: there are crazy returns to any structure at all, and much more from the right structure.

    The plus side, as you say, is that in unstructured roles you’re not bounded by the structure, which exists to protect. There are fewer safety lines, and it’s higher stakes – you can take the power to succeed or fail on your own, with your own ingenuity and the vagaries of fate.

    I do agree with you in general about how ladder roles are a trade off. I’ve had a somewhat less standard professional career thus far, and it’s been a novel learning experience; one I doubt I would have received in another, more structured, role.

    Note: You might want to think about / discuss the importance of reducing the choice set people face in gains from structure. A simple representation of structure is to reduce the choice set to known-good options, and this increase average performance. Given e.g. decision fatigue, even the best person will not choose the best, or even a good, choice from an unbounded choice set all the time.

    Given your new role – congrats! – you might want to consider, also, the trade offs in choice-set classification – and in particular, the means to control/influence that choice set. Are some means of control better than others? Can you segment people by offering them expanded choice sets, with some known-good and known-“bad” options, and see what they do? Is there a way of formalizing institutional learning by articulating choice set limitations, especially the conditions under which those limitations apply and how the organization might need to watch for the violation of those assumptions?

    One book I enjoyed reading, on power in general, was by Lukes:

    He articulates different kinds of power, with the primary applications being political and sociological. It’s not exactly related to structure/unstructure, unless you (as I’ve done here) articulate structure as a reduction in choice set (e.g. express an approval process as reducing the choice set of what to do when a task is completed to submitting it to the approver).