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From Ladders to Mountains: How to Choose an Authentic Career Path

Updated: Aug 22

Does imagery shape your professional journey? Discover the empowering shift from the 'career ladder' to the expansive vision of the 'career mountain', opening up multiple paths to the summit tailored to your unique strengths, values, and life situations.

woman wearing a backpack admiring the view during her mountain hike

Are you familiar with the traditional metaphor of the "career ladder"? It's hard not to be! A career ladder or corporate ladder is a metaphor for a job promotion. The career ladder typically describes the progression from entry-level positions to higher pay, skill, responsibility, or authority levels in business and human resources management. It's both a metaphor and a documented framework that helps employees understand how to get from here to there.

But what if it is more than that?

What if it is an (unhelpful) mindset that limits where there is?

In this article, we will explore the alternative to the career ladder: Career Mountain. A squiggly career with an ambition to reach the top.

This concept represents a shift towards a leadership mindset that embraces multiple pathways, collective progress, and an understanding of the advantages and barriers in our climb. This article will explore why we prefer the Career Mountain metaphor over the Career Ladder, especially regarding female career development.

Metaphors Matter

Choosing the right imagery to describe our career paths is not trivial. The metaphors we use influence our perceptions and expectations, shaping our approach to finding our career path. In addition to stimulating higher levels of mental processing, metaphors elevate discourse beyond the mere relating of facts, affording us a richer expression of concepts, perceptions, and emotions. Used well, they deepen communication, advance knowledge, and inspire us.

In their classic book, Metaphors We Live By, linguistic philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson analyse how metaphors shape our thinking and behaviour. They argue that metaphors are not just a language feature but are the basis of our “conceptual system.” Thus, metaphor often guides what we experience, think or do. Given how powerful metaphors can be in shaping human experience in the context of career development, perhaps, it is worth considering how metaphorical thinking influences the paths we believe are open to us.

Because metaphors are critical to understanding the world around us, choosing the wrong ones can make the struggle for autonomy and progression seem like standing astride two galloping horses how did that metaphor make you feel?

The Career Ladder

In the early 20th century, career choice and career progression were dictated by tradition, socio-economic status, family and gender. For most men, career choice—and status within those careers—was determined by what their fathers and other male family members had done before them. For women, employment options were even more limited by convention. Career progression and career ladders were almost nonexistent.

In the immediate post-WWII world, the corporate organisation became the driving force in U.S. business. Both employers and employees operated under an implied contract: Employees would be loyal, and employers would provide employment until retirement. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, this traditional trajectory of a person's career at one employer became a thing of the past.

From the late 1970s onward, the global economy experienced several boom-and-bust cycles, causing many organisations to undergo massive layoffs and restructuring and to be reticent to re-staff at pre-bust levels even when times were good. The organisational structure became much flatter, and the once-implied contract of employee loyalty for lifetime employment was broken.

Thus, a new paradigm emerged: individuals are in charge of their progression. Employers create a ladder. How high they want to go on it is up to the employee.

Intended as an answer to the problem of broken trust, the ladder created more problems than it solved.

There's a quote by the famous author Stephen Covey that says, "If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster." In recent years, more people have discovered that the best career paths aren’t always straight lines. Authors Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis refer to these non-linear paths as “squiggly careers,” which are “full of uncertainty and possibility.” Squiggly careers offer lots of benefits, but squiggly can also be messy. Perhaps this is why HR has clung to the ladder.

In 2022, and McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace report that the biggest obstacle keeping women from advancing in their careers is what they call the “broken rung” — the initially missed promotion from an entry-level position to manager statistically winds up holding women back for the rest of their careers. This is a blind spot for the business world, which typically concentrates more on pipeline than progression.

“A lot of organizations are focused on promoting women at the top of the pipeline because for years we talked about the glass ceiling — that invisible barrier women face later in their careers that prevents them from reaching the most senior ranks in organizations,” says Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of “In reality, women are disadvantaged from the get-go, and they never catch up.”

So, it's worth reflecting: do we want our careers and organisations to resemble a rigid ladder which does not provide for lateral movement and is assumed to be a singular track with the greatest benefits at the top?

If not, then it's time to rethink the metaphor we use to describe our journey.

The Career Mountain

Why the career mountain when a career path, a career lattice, and a dual ladder or dual career path already exist? Because each of these are frameworks which, although increasing the paths open to us, are still curated by our employers.

OK, then, how about squiggly careers? In The Squiggly Career, you’ll learn how to play to your super strengths, discover your values, overcome your confidence gremlins, build better support networks and explore your future possibilities. How is a mountain different?

Because to climb a mountain, you need ambition.

Why is that important? In her Forbes article named for that quote, Caroline Castrillon describes it perfectly;

"Too often, ambitious women are viewed as pushy, selfish and unlikeable. It’s not the success that is so off-putting but the desire for something more that seems to inspire feelings of disdain. Oh sure, it’s okay to say you were successful because of luck. You were in the right place at the right time. You got your foot in the door because you knew so-and-so. But once you imply, or better yet, state, that you actually deserved it because you worked so hard—it’s not socially acceptable. The implication is that women don’t deserve to want more. Women don’t deserve to dream big. Well, I have news for you—they do."

Like a squiggly career, a mountain mindset fosters a more inclusive, cooperative and resilient approach to finding your career path and can help you navigate career transitions with more grace and flexibility. But it does all this while acknowledging that we do it all because we want to reach the top.

If that sounds like something you're interested in, then let's explore the metaphor to see how far it can take us,

Climbers can choose from several paths leading to the summit of the mountain, offering different terrains and approaches.

Some career paths might be steep and challenging, ideal for those willing to take on high-risk, high-reward scenarios. It's easy to imagine this career path to be popular with recent graduates—their boundless energy and lack of responsibilities help them to bounce along through rough terrain. Others might prefer safer, more gradual career paths. The well-trodden routes are more suitable for those juggling caring or health priorities.

The success of a mountaineering expedition depends on the members helping each other to reach the summit.

Cooperating doesn't need to come at the expense of ambition. There is a name for the mix of competition and cooperation: co-opetition. There are many reasons for climbers to cooperate. At the simplest level, it can be a way to save costs and share the load. Collaboration may be the only option if a summit is too big or risky to go for alone. In other cases, if one climber is better at doing A while the other is better at B, they can trade skills. And even if one climber is better at A and the other has no better B to offer, it may still make sense to share A at the right price.

The success of a mountaineer depends on the quality of their "equipment".

The Career Mountain acknowledges the existence of privilege—the 'equipment' some climbers have access to that makes certain paths more accessible to them—while recognising the role of equity. Of course, those climbing in sneakers aren't going to make the same progress as those in top-of-the-range hiking boots! You do not belong to the lower category of climbers. You do not need to be sent on climbing courses. You need a better pair of boots. The kind of boots other climbers take for granted.

Preparation doesn't work on a mountain. Being ready does.

The mountain is always evolving. An unexpected landslide could suddenly block your path, much like unforeseen circumstances in our professional lives, such as sudden organisational changes or global crises. Being prepared is having a map. Being ready is having a compass. When one path is blocked, we seek alternative routes, leverage our skills, and adapt our strategies.

The Mountain Can Kill You

Just like trying to climb a mountain with inadequate gear or a route that doesn't match our fitness level, attempting a career path that isn't aligned with our needs, values, and circumstances can lead to a gruelling and unfulfilling journey. It's like trying to run up a steep hill while carrying a heavy backpack - the struggle intensifies with every step, progress seems negligible, and each day feels like a battle against gravity. This feeling is akin to what many of us know as burnout - chronic stress, exhaustion, and dissatisfaction.

Which path will you choose?

Few questions will stir up as much debate as how to approach your career. Opinions are a mix of personal experience, politics, and values. It's rare that anyone can agree on more than a handful of points. The mountain is our contribution to the conversation. What do you think? Does it resonate with you and where you're going?

Hodology offers executive coaching and personal change management to executive women as they climb the career mountain. Talk to us to find out more about how we can help you climb.

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