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Ron Ashkenas

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Your Career Needs to Be Horizontal

Posted: 04/ 3/2012 12:39 pm

Like it or not, most of us think about career success in terms of moving up the hierarchy. Let me illustrate with a story:

I once worked with the new CEO of a well-known global firm which was barely breaking even. The CEO's mandate from the board was to improve profitability. To do this, he planned to institute global manufacturing platforms so that product "families" would have the same core design no matter where in the world they were sold. The reduced-cost savings would be in the tens of millions of dollars.

This initiative would take a couple years of hard work, so the CEO tapped the president of the North American Division to take the lead on a full-time basis. This person, let's call him Bill, had been with the company for many years, understood the engineering and supply chain issues, and was well respected by everyone.

The only problem was that Bill thought the assignment would be personally embarrassing. "Look," he said, "I currently have 10,000 people reporting to me and responsibility for the largest P&L in the company. If I ran a task force, everyone would think I was being put out to pasture. It would be better if you just fired me."

The shocked CEO stood his ground and argued that Bill was the perfect fit for this assignment, and how critical it was to the company. Eventually Bill gave in and his new position was announced. Sure enough, in the days that followed, Bill received dozens of emails and calls offering consolation on his "demotion" and help in finding a new job elsewhere. The head of Human Resources even asked the CEO whether Bill's job-grade and performance bonus should be reduced. Not one person congratulated him.

What's going on here? Why do people assume that a big title trumps a value-creating initiative? The answer is that hierarchy is more than just a way of designing the organization: It drives how we think about relationships, contribution, careers, and success.

Most of us have grown up assuming that career success is vertical. We climb the ladder and move from junior positions to senior ones. As such, we implicitly compete with others because there are fewer positions as we advance. It's like a reality show where people get kicked off the island.

The problem with this powerful paradigm is that today's work is no longer divided up into small tasks that require higher and higher layers of management to put together. Instead most work is accomplished through horizontal processes that cut across different functions, geographies, and specialties. Therefore real success comes less from controlling people that report to you, and more from the ability to align stakeholders who surround you.

Given the hierarchical structures of most organizations, we will still have upward career paths. More and more however, the real contributors will be the process owners and project leaders that are able to provide horizontal leadership. To support this shift, organizations will need to reward and recognize horizontal contributions as much, if not more, than hierarchical positions. At the same time, each of us will need to overcome our personal assumptions about moving up the career ladder, and think more about how we add value across. When that happens, everyone will congratulate "Bill" about his promotion to the task force leadership role.

What's your view about career progression -- should it be "up" or "across"?


This post is part of the special series The New Rules for Getting a Job.

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.

 

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