It’s pretty common to hear people talk about climbing the corporate ladder when they are talking about career advancement. It implies that every step we take is one that will move us closer to the top; to the executive or senior management level. This ladder metaphor, however, is becoming increasingly obsolete.

In a Harvard Business Review post from February 15th, author Priscialla Claman states:

Career ladders died out during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when over 85% of Fortune 1000 American companies downsized their white-collar workforce.* Downsizing has only escalated from there, however in the 80s and 90s the lost jobs were not in manufacturing but white-collar jobs, including management jobs.

Claman reinforces the idea that the lack of a formal process toward promotion gives us the opportunity to have more control over our careers and think strategically about what our next step might be.

In their book, Through the Labyrinth, authors Alice Eagly and Linda Carli state,

Paths to the top exist, and some women find them. The successful routes can be difficult to discover, however, and therefore we label these circuitous paths a labyrinth.

I interviewed Susan Bulkeley Butler on my previous radio show, Head over Heels. Susan was the first female partner at Accenture. She told me that she knew early in her career that she wanted to be a partner in the firm, and every three years she would think strategically about what new skills she needed, where she would gain more visibility, and she would make a move to another position within the company. Sometimes these moves were lateral but always strategic with the end goal of partner in mind. Susan did reach her goal by building her social capital in the company and expanding her skill set beyond her comfort zone.

Often the next step for us is not up the ladder, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t reach the top by thinking strategically about our careers and managing our careers instead of our jobs. Look for opportunities to expand your skill set, build and leverage relationships inside and outside the company. Become politically savvy and understand the corporate power network, the decision makers and influencers. Work on improving your executive presence (communication skills and body language) so that you are visible as a competent and authentic leader.

Many doors are open to women who recognize the ladder is not the only way to advance their careers. Women who think strategically about their career path and learn how to navigate the labyrinth will be successful even though the corporate ladder is not readily available.