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Rung by rung

- Posted: September 11, 2018
By Phil Harwood, CSP

If you want to develop your career, or if you have someone you are supposed to be developing, this article is for you, as it targets some fundamental aspects of career ladders. 
Do career ladders really exist? Yes. My career is a great example. I moved “up the ladder” throughout my career slowly, incrementally, and with much patience. I started at the bottom and worked my way up as opportunities arose with three companies over a 20-year period, before starting my consulting firm 10 years ago. Many others in our industry have similar stories about their career ladders. 

However, at no point in my career did someone show me a ladder for my entire career. Instead it resembled more of a “one-rung-at-a-time” approach. Focusing on the next step is sometimes all that is possible because the future is unknown. I strongly believe in this approach to laddering your career. It is unlikely that you will be able to lay out your entire career on paper at any given point. I would be hard-pressed to do so for the rest of mine, and I’m 30 years in. Seeing the next step and pursuing it is more realistic. 

Growth strategy
View your career as more like scaling a rock wall or climbing Mount Everest than climbing a ladder. There are lateral moves, jumps and sometimes backtracking to move further ahead. Careers rarely follow a perfectly linear trajectory, as if you are climbing an aluminum ladder. 

Picture yourself on the rock wall or the mountain, trying to move up. What are the best options for foot placement? What’s the best path uphill? Can you make it? Do you have the guts to try? How bad do you want it? Sometimes there are no good options and you just need to stay put and wait for something to change. In the meantime, you can utilize this time to prepare for the next push forward. What are you doing today to prepare yourself for what lies ahead? 

Sometimes the path is clear. Some of you will be taking over a family business in the future. You know what you need to develop. Ask yourself: Where do you find the right solution for this development and what is your timeline? One of my best friends is handing off his dental practice of over 30 years to his son Dan, who recently graduated from dental school. Dan has his entire career mapped out. Such situations are the exception, not the rule. 

Take the lead in your future

So, back to laddering your career. Consider your place in your career and decide on that next step - the next rung. Don’t stress about the one after that. It will unfold in time. Be patient. Let it play out. Seek to develop continuously. There is no better preparation than education, coaching and mentoring. These will prepare you well for the ladder you are building. 

In addition, involve your superiors in this process. They may or may not be helpful but give them the opportunity. If nothing else, they should be aware and engaged if they choose to be. However, keep in mind that you are responsible for your career and are in the best position to decide the next step. Don’t look to others to give you answers. Early in my career, I met with a senior manager of the company I was working for, hoping to gain insight on my career ladder. She blew me off, telling me that “she didn’t have a crystal ball.” At the time, I was discouraged by this reaction. But, she was right. If she would have had a better way of explaining this to me, I wouldn’t haven’t been so taken aback by her response. 

Looking for a career ladder? Guess what? You are standing on it. Now build the rest of it!

Phil Harwood, CSP, is a managing partner in GrowTheBench, which provides online education, professional development and peer groups for landscape and snow management industry companies. Email him at
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