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Cathy Benko

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Replace Corporate Ladders With Lattices

Posted: 02/01/11 02:16 PM ET

So it's a new year, a time for looking forward toward positive change, but I can't say I hold out a lot of hope that this change of the calendar will do much to increase the number of women in leadership. Why the grim outlook? Well, as the saying goes, history repeats itself. The history in this case is Catalyst's most recent report, which cites that in 2010 women held 14% of executive office positions at Fortune 500 companies, 8% of top earner spots, and 16% of board of directors seats. This compares to a decade ago when women comprised 13%, 4%, and 12% of these groups, respectively. Nope, not much of a change.

What is different today is that women now represent more than half of the workforce. So the proportion of working women has reached parity, yet the number in the senior ranks hasn't budged more than a tad. Since the pipeline is no longer leaking, it means they are getting stuck. And if they are getting stuck, organizations are not realizing their Gender Dividend -- the return on having women fully integrated into decision-making at all levels.

How does that saying go? Something about "doing the same thing and expecting a different result." At what point will we get it that we can't get there from here? If we want to change the result, it's time to change the model.

Among the chief reasons cited for the dismal representation of women in leadership is the proportion of women who have nonlinear careers -- journeys that weave into and out of key roles (and the workforce overall) versus a straight and steady climb. And the chief reason for this undulation is that they play leading roles on the home front; leading to supporting roles on the work front.

But traditional gender roles are blurring on all fronts -- in ways that are expanding the need for both women and men to integrate life into work and work into life. So, in turn, the antiquated corporate ladder rules of an era gone by must evolve as well.

Climbing the ladder has been the de facto standard of success since the start of the industrial revolution a century ago. The ladder metaphor proffers a worldview in which power, rewards, and access to information are tied to the rung each individual occupies. Its hierarchical structure governs how information flows and whose ideas matter. It defines career success as a linear climb to the top. Ultimately, the ladder's one-size-fits-all approach assumes that employees are more alike than different and that they want and need similar things.

What's at odds here is that today's workforce isn't like its father's, and deeply rooted ladder expectations are now limiting our ability to respond to the shifting demographics. Family structures have changed markedly, with a mere one in six U.S. families mirroring the "traditional" structure where Dad goes off to work and Mom tends things on the home front. More than 40% of all working women are the primary breadwinner, while men in dual-career couples now report one-third greater work-life conflict than women. And younger generations are bringing different attitudes to work at the same time that older workers are looking for flexible options to stay in the labor market.

Rather than acknowledge this shift, the business world has been busily creating work-arounds (think flexible work arrangements or mentoring programs for women) to smooth the rough edges between well-ingrained ladder norms and today's realities. It's exasperating how much we continue to invest in the future using yesterday's ladder blueprint in a futile attempt to hold fast to an outmoded set of rules for the ways, meanings, and measures of career success .

Hope Is Not a Strategy

When will we learn that time alone won't fix this? What's needed is broad adoption of a corporate lattice model. Why a lattice? In mathematics, a lattice is a multidimensional structure that extends infinitely in any direction. In the real world, lattice structures are platforms for growth evident everywhere from a garden trellis to corporate matrix structures and network models.

Let's face it, careers are no longer straight shots up for the majority of us, women and men alike; instead they zig-zag. A lattice is simply a more adaptive construct chock full of options for how to view and enable career success, which makes it better suited to align with the changing needs and expectations of today's workplace.

Rather than holding fixed ideas about how careers should progress and at what pace, the lattice opens up the aperture of acceptable ways and rates of development. It moves our thinking -- both employer and employee -- away from a view that success is linked solely to vertical progression. Instead it recognizes more varied paths of customized learning and growth that are in step with individuals' career-life goals at various stages in their lives. It formalizes opportunities to progress horizontally and diagonally, which benefits organizations and individuals alike as flattening organizational structures mean fewer rungs and a smaller supply of possible upward moves. And as people acquire more transferrable skills, the lattice model helps organizations develop the breadth and depth of capabilities that they need to compete in today's fast-paced and ever-changing marketplace.

The metaphorical shift from ladder to lattice clears the path for making a real change in gender dividends and results.