The work world offers a continuum of means to stability. Huge risk takers might choose to pay off the Russian mob and try to corner the oil market in Siberia. If you’re looking for stability, you might try climbing a corporate ladder in a large, publicly traded company.
Climbing, of course, could lead to instability. The less valuable you are to the company, the more likely you are to be laid off, given mind-numbing work, or given positions that offer little flexibility. And those situations often lead to big instability.
But there are a few things you can do to make ladder-climbing easier. So here are four ideas, and one general tip: Pay attention to employment litigation – where the courts are systematically documenting what helps and hinders ladder-climbers as a way to protect minorities from discrimination.
Start somewhere good.
There are companies that are known for being respectful of employees and there are companies known for being embroiled in litigation from bitter employees.
Stay away from the latter. In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert shows that if the last girl liked the guy you’re dating, then you’ll probably like him, too. It is not a big leap to apply this research to the workplace. If other people love working at the company, then you will, too.
So talk to former employees and find out if they liked the company. (Current employees often have too much invested in their job to tell you the company stinks.) LinkedIn.com is actually a great way to find former employees of a given company. And most people will be happy to tell you if they loved their former match.
Get a sponsor.
In order to move up in a large company you need someone to guide you. A sponsor is someone who is a mentor, but it’s a specific type of mentor. This person is well-connected in the company and will not only make you known to the right people, but will help you steer yourself within the company.
You find a sponsor the same way you would find a mentor. By networking, by approaching the person directly, or by asking your human resources department if there’s a company program you can join.
It is well documented that a sponsor works to get an employee up the ladder. And because of this, when a large company gets in trouble for not promoting enough minorities into senior management, one way they can remedy the problem in a way that satisfies the courts is to establish a sponsor program for minorities.
This should be enough evidence for you to set up your own little program, for yourself.
Get into a line management position.
Corporations are set up to favor ladder climbing from line management rather than from support roles.
What does this mean? Line managers are directly responsible for generating money for the company (think product management or sales). Support staff, on the other hand, is responsible for making things run smoothly so the line managers can generate money (think human resources, public relations or customer service).
Support managers generally do not have the profit-and-loss experience necessary for a top management position. Of all the CEOs who have worked their way up the ladder, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with someone who made their mark on the company in a support role. And discrimination lawsuits have identified placing minorities in human resources and public relations departments as inherently career-limiting moves.
Retain some flexibility.
One of the most important pieces of climbing a ladder is creating a situation where you have enough clout to create a furtively flexible work life. (For example, a last-minute decision to go to a basketball game does not raise any eyebrows.) This is what will make ladder-climbing palatable over an extended period of time.
Take a job that allows you to add directly to the company’s bottom line, because if you can take responsibility for profits, then you will get more leeway to create the kind of work life you want. And that, after all, is the key to making a climb up the ladder a positive experience.