Heard of the Corporate Ladder? What About the Corporate Lattice

“Climbing the corporate ladder” was always the plan, right?  You would land that law firm or in-house counsel job, and then put your nose to the grindstone and slowly advance through the ranks to partner or general counsel.  Well, as you have likely discovered, staying in one place and going rung by rung up the proverbial corporate ladder is not always the ticket to success.

For one thing, the predictable movement upward in an organization is not a given, as it once was for the Baby Boomer generation.  In fact, for all of the Millennials and Gen-X-ers out there, the path to reaching your career goals is less about the corporate ladder, and more about navigating the “corporate lattice.”

What Is the Corporate Lattice? 

Simply put, the corporate lattice is a visual way to picture your career progress as one where you may have to move sideways, stretch diagonally, or even take a step backwards, in order to get to where you want to go in your legal career.  Inspired by the “corporate jungle gym” concept from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, the corporate lattice is a way to look at your career landscape as a non-linear place of multiple opportunities and eclectic choices, rather than as a lock-step march upwards in a single track.

If you are looking for new opportunities, then you will find the corporate lattice concept very helpful as you navigate your career forward.  In this article, we will cover the value of looking at your career in terms of the corporate lattice, the need for career mentors and role models, and the pros and cons of veering off of the traditional legal career path.  Hopefully, this brief discussion will encourage you to take a chance, choose the road less traveled, and ultimately land the job of your dreams.

The Value and Importance of Stepping Sideways to Secure Skills and Competencies

Let’s say that you love to cook.  You are planning a fabulous meal for family and friends, and you want everything to be just right.  Do you just go to the local deli and buy whatever is on the shelf?  Not even close.  You go to different shops to get just the right ingredients.

Planning the perfect career is not that different from planning the perfect meal.  Just like you have to go to different places to find quality ingredients, you sometimes have to take a detour from the well-worn path to gain the right skills and competencies to ultimately get you to where you want to be.

Take Sheryl Sandberg, for example.  Sandberg is currently the COO of Facebook, but the Harvard BA and MBA graduate did not start her career in social media tech.  Trained as an economist, she worked at the World Bank, McKinsey, and was Chief of Staff for Larry Summers at the U.S. Treasury Department during the Clinton Administration.

Following her time in Washington D.C., Sandberg went to Silicon Valley with no job and scant tech experience.  After a year-long search, she took her chances and decided to work for two tech startups, Google, and then Facebook.  It appears she chose well.

That story should be an inspiration to all of us.  Sandberg did not stay in the same organization.  She started in an international organization, but stepped sideways into a political role.  She then took another detour to a less prestigious role at Google, right before Google was to take over the internet.

As Sandberg herself admits, “I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today.”  Yet, each job provided her with vital skills, competencies, and life experience that informed her next job.  The same goes true for everyone.  We may not always take the obvious path, but each sideways, diagonal, or downward move on the lattice provides us with rich experiences – the quality ingredients – that we need to thrive in our next role.

The Role of a Mentor in Advancing Your Career

It cannot be emphasized enough how important other people are to your career, as well as in life.  Think about the professor who you were close to in law school, the judge you clerked for, or the partner who took you under his or her wing at your first job.  The people you encounter in your career have a lot to offer.  That provides another angle to your career trajectory as a latticework rather than ladder.

With the people you meet on your career journey, you can quickly learn that there are many roads to a particular goal.  You can learn from the advice your mentor gives you, from the example your mentor sets, and from the internal and external opportunities your mentor sends your way.  But also, do not discount the value of learning about career development from how your mentor got to be where he or she is.  It is most likely that there was an unconventional twist and turn for your mentor along the way as well.

There are so many examples of a sideways step leading to greater things.  Think about the young law firm associate who connects with a senior colleague, joins her political campaign, and ultimately is nominated to a state supreme court seat.  Or, consider the young attorney who left practice to build a company and ends up as the GC of a multi-national corporation.  The lattice can lead to surprising and phenomenal success.  So, do not be afraid to explore the opportunities presented to you.  Even if you initially think something might be a step backwards, it could, in the long run, lead to marvelous results.

The Pros and Cons of Stepping Off the Traditional Legal Career Path

While so far in this discussion we have focused on the positive reasons for considering a non-traditional career path, remember that any career move should be considered carefully.  That is particularly true with regard to navigating the corporate lattice rather than the corporate ladder.  Accordingly, let us look at the pros and cons that you should keep in mind when considering a non-traditional legal career move.

First, the pros.  Navigating the corporate lattice can provide the following benefits:

  • Broader Perspective. Gaining experience outside of the regular legal career path will provide amazing perspective, which you simply cannot gain when you remain in only one field or area of specialization.
  • New People. Moving across an organization, or into a different industry altogether, will allow you to encounter a varied set of people, beyond one department or functional area.
  • New Discoveries. Immersing yourself in a different role, where you are focused on building your competencies rather than looking at competing with colleagues in the same department, will challenge you, stimulate you, and expose you to exciting new opportunities.

Next, the cons.  The lattice does not come without its challenges:

  • Perception. A lateral, or seemingly downward, move on your resume might be met with skepticism from hiring  decision makers.  Giving context as to why a move was a smart one is something that you will need to address in order to dispel any skepticism moving forward.
  • Compensation. It is not uncommon when moving sideways on the corporate lattice that a new position might pay less than your last one.  While that is of course not ideal, do not forget that a move to gain new skills or experience might pay dividends in the long run.  Try not to lose sight of the bigger picture.
  • Out of Your Comfort Zone. Following a non-traditional path means that you will likely be out of your comfort zone.  That can be difficult, particularly if you find solace in staying with your peers.  Yet, the adage “what won’t kill you will make you stronger” applies here.  Shaking things up by venturing into a new field might be unnerving initially, but it could result in significant long-term benefits.

In sum, it is more likely these days that you will need to navigate the corporate lattice rather than climb the corporate ladder.  That, however, is not a bad thing.  In fact, following a non-traditional path in your legal career could pay off immensely in the end.  So, do not be afraid to face the unique lateral moves and even downward jumps as you move through the lattice towards success.  In the end, you will know you followed your heart, and your career, and your life will be the better for it.