Why climbing the corporate ladder may be the worst path to the top

“Up” is not the only option.
“Up” is not the only option.
Image: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the way to success is to stay in your lane, climbing the corporate ladder and meeting people within your industry or sector.

But research suggests that developing a tight-knit group of contacts within a single industry, or working on one single path, is actually far less valuable than building a network that spans industries and groups.

The sociologist Ronald Burt first theorized about the opportunity that lies in the gaps between social groups, which he called “structural holes.” His first name for clusters of contacts were, perhaps more appropriately, “redundancy.”

“People who spend a lot of time with the same other people often get to know one another,” Burt wrote. And when everyone in the local cluster knows or has access to the same information as everyone else, the contacts are likewise redundant. Inside of these clusters information can move fast and collaboration happens easily, but the downside is that information tends to stay stuck inside the cluster and new information from outside rarely enters. 

Burt asserted, rather logically, that the gaps between clusters come with a large information advantage, and that those who span the gap are able to leverage that advantage. Indeed, the people who fill structural holes—the “brokers,” as they would later be labeled—end up with control over the flow of information and eventually with more power than those who just sit inside of a cluster.

In one study of his thesis, Burt surveyed 673 managers at a large electronics company who ran the supply chain for the entire firm and asked them for an idea to improve the supply chain and also who, if anyone, they’d discussed this idea with. He then surveyed senior managers to get their impressions of how strong or weak the ideas were. When he took all this data and compared it to the network map, he saw that brokers—those who were discussing ideas with individuals from other clusters or groups of the organization—were significantly more likely to have valuable ideas for improvement.

Burt demonstrated, as did multiple follow-up studies, that brokers between groups are often paid more, are promoted more often, and have the best chance of coming up with innovative new ideas.

But how do you build a career as a broker?

Two decades after Burt first proposed his theory of structural holes, Adam Kleinbaum, a professor at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, may have found an answer to this question.

Kleinbaum conducted a study inside a large information technology firm. Like Burt, Kleinbaum first began by recruiting employees and surveying their contacts. Unlike Burt, however, Kleinbaum didn’t just ask them to list a few contacts. Instead, he got access to employees’ emails. Kleinbaum collected three months’ worth of email communication from 30,262 participants inside the firm. Using the email data, he was able to construct a rough network map of the organization.

Kleinbaum also collected human resource data from each of the volunteer employees in the sample. This included employees’ demographic data, like gender, but also their salary levels and career paths over a period of seventy-seven months, including their business units, job functions, and locations. When he finally looked at the complete picture, Kleinbaum found something surprising. The individuals most likely to become brokers and to develop connections across structural holes were what he called “organizational misfits.”

Instead of pursuing the slow and steady ladder-climbing career paths of most employees, these misfits had atypical career paths, bouncing around to different business units and filling different job functions. “The more diverse an actor’s career history across groups, the more likely that actor is to engage in improbable category-spanning communication,” he wrote.

The findings make sense intuitively: If your career path takes you to various silos inside an organization, you are much more likely to have a diverse set of relationships than if you merely climb upward inside the same leg of the organizational chart. However, the findings run counter to much of our conventional wisdom about how to grow a career inside of a company or industry. We are told, and often tell others, to work hard, keep your head down, and just focus on climbing the ladder. This traditional advice might actually bring diminishing returns as more and more new contacts turn out to be redundant. The research on structural holes suggests that jumping from ladder to ladder is a more effective strategy, and that lateral or even downward moves across an organization are more promising in the long run.

David Burkus is the author of Friend of a Friend and an associate professor of leadership and innovation at Oral Roberts University.