Up Isn’t The Only Way: A New Approach To Career Progression

in Leadership

By Eugene Chang and Michel Buffet, Korn Ferry

Are we there yet? How much further? Careers, like road trips, have traditionally had an identifiable destination and a known route to get there. But what happens when the roadmap is ripped up?

This has become the fate of traditional career pathways. Once, an individual could map their career years into the future, but gradual promotion to the apex of a particular career path is now a thing of the past.

Companies have delayered and the world has become more complex and diverse. Organisations now need leaders with a breadth of experience that can’t be found travelling up the rungs of a narrow career ladder. And they need them to acquire these skills quickly.

Careers now move sideways, diagonally, up and back in order for individuals to gather the experiences they need. But just because progress isn’t linear doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be planned.

Companies need to optimise their learning and development programs and provide succession support to engineer strategic career moves that prepare leaders for future roles and boost their chances of success.

How Did We Get Here?

Leadership has changed because work has changed. So it makes sense that the traditional career ladder no longer offers the best path to the ‘top’. 

The changes to the working environment are many and varied, but we see three main areas in particular that have big implications for the type of leaders organisations need.

First, new technologies and shifting industry boundaries in a globalised business landscape require multifaceted leaders. Their individual experiences need to reflect the complexity and diversity of leadership accountabilities, and can’t be found in a single career stream.

Secondly, COVID-19 has disrupted business models and led organisations to redefine what great leaders look like in an increasingly diffuse workplace.

Finally, the now indisputable need for diversity and inclusion (D&I) is rightfully changing how we view leadership. The traditional career ladder has been a major inhibitor of D&I and care and attention is needed to transform leadership pipelines for the future.

Three Steps To Master The Career Lattice


These changes don’t do away with the need for career and succession planning, rather planning is more important than ever. So what can organisations do to help their people navigate the career lattice?

1. Start with purpose

The path to any leadership career starts with a clear sense of purpose. Identifying and committing to a purpose can offer each individual their own guiding star. As they progress through their careers, purpose will help shape a more authentic, personalised road to fulfilling their potential, beyond simply climbing rung after rung.

2. Employ a career lattice strategy

Organisations adopting a career lattice approach to progression are normalising the important place for lateral and diagonal roles in building experience, rejecting the notion that up is the only acceptable option. 

Progessive companies are expanding this idea further, with their lattices extending beyond the walls of the organisation. One business in Indonesia is preparing its leaders for a major shift in their business model by not only investing in leadership programs at places like Harvard and Wharton, but also creating opportunities for immersive experiences outside of the business in start-ups.

3. Rethink the 70/20/10 model

And when we say rethink, we actually mean smash. By challenging these traditional ratios, organisations can benefit from new perspectives on how leaders should develop. Ultimately, development needs to be about leadership outcomes, rather than the form of delivery and should elevate an outside-in perspective to generate innovation and cross-pollination of ideas. 



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