The career ladder has earned its critics. And make no mistake: There are many, many—many!—of them. Toss out the career ladder, says one detractor. People are no longer interested, says another, in climbing a ladder that someone else built. One New York Times headline might cite it best: “Up the Ladder?,” it reads. “How Dated, How Linear.”
For those of us in search of a career shift, here’s an alternate view: Think of your career not like a ladder, but a jungle gym. The idea’s popular among professionals who pivot; even Sheryl Sandberg references it in Lean In. “Ladders are limiting—people can move up or down, on or off,” Sandberg writes. “Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration.”
The jungle gym’s inspired plenty of spinoffs, too. There’s the career climbing wall, the career obstacle course, and even the career playground. But no matter your metaphor, the idea’s the same: Our professional paths have room to roam, to explore across and around, and to leap towards new opportunities.
It’s a great approach to career changes. But for all that they offer about the directions we can move in our careers, these metaphors don’t say as much about what comes after you make a big move—whether it’s a new role, a new industry, or another new challenge. Say you’ve leapt into a career change. How can you stick the landing?
Looking past the ladder
I made my own career shift this fall. After working in roles adjacent to newsrooms, I decided I wanted to move into the news itself—and landed in a deputy editor role here at Quartz.
I’m not alone in making the switch: A recent survey finds that half of working Americans want to make a career change, with one-third looking to switch industries. And companies are giving space for shifts, too. According to another global report, nearly two-thirds of employers are willing to hire someone with transferable skills and train them on the job.
Maybe you’re considering a change ahead, or you’ve already made your own career shift. I checked back in with Jenny Blake, the career strategist behind the book Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One, to find out how you can make the most of it when you start.
Step one: Map your milestones 🗺
Once you’ve gotten your grounding in a new position, plan some preliminary milestones. Do you want to become an ace assignment wrangler? Rewrite the recruitment process? “You should set your intentions for a new role,” Blake says. From there you can map your next movements.
Plan goals you’d like to hit in your first 30 days, 90 days, and year on the job. You can do it alone, Blake says, or work with your manager to steer the path.
Step two: Listen up 🎧
Next, start information-gathering as you settle into your role. “I recommend doing some kind of listening tour,” Blake says. Talk to teammates, people across your organization, and people outside of it, too, to ask what they think is needed in your position.
Check in with your manager, too: Blake says one of the best ways to find success is asking them directly what they’d be excited to see happen in your new role.
Step three: Supercharge some wins ⚡️
“I like to think, in a new role, of lining up quick wins,” Blake says. Pick up your first projects with the aim of getting a few things achieved quickly: it’ll boost your confidence as you get started. Finding one way to improve workflow or documentation, for example, is a great place to begin.
“Less is more,” Blake adds. “Frantically taking on too many small projects doesn’t really add up to a bigger impact.”
Step four: Download skills like apps 📲
Your skills are your best currency for career changes. And Blake says they can keep powering you as you work in your new role post-shift.
Think of your career, Blake says, like your smartphone, with every experience you pick up like downloading a new app. That could be dealing with a difficult manager or learning to code. Those apps—now your marketable skills—are going to serve you both in the new job and the rest of your career.
Landing the leap
Once you’ve leapt into a new career change, you don’t have to stop exploring. Keep looking out and ahead, whether it’s across the jungle gym, around the climbing wall, or over the playground. There are plenty of moves to make—and ways to make the most of one move.
More stories for career changes
🕘 Here’s the right time to make a pivot, according to a career-change expert
⛹️♀️ Treat your next career change like a verb
📝 Try our simple worksheet to help figure out your next career move
🔄 Thinking of switching careers? Read this advice first
💼 The career of the future looks more like a portfolio than a path
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Send questions, comments, and stories of your full turns to email@example.com. This edition of The Memo was written by Gabriela Riccardi and edited by Anna Oakes.