How to Create a Culture of Opportunity

Career Ladder or Career Jungle Gym? How to Create a Culture of Opportunity

JUN 26, 2019

I recently caught up with a former colleague who is now running a large, high profile sales organization. When I asked how it was going, he looked at me, sighed, and said, “It seems like everyone just wants to be a manager.”

As the economy heats up, so do employee expectations. According to one study, 73% of employees left their job for career advancement. But with limited managerial seats to go around, I wanted to share some helpful ways to talk with employees about their ambitions, allowing them to “grow in place” when necessary.

A competitive workplace is sometimes referred to as a jungle, but how about a jungle gym? As leaders and employees wrestle with career advancement and development, I encourage them to stop thinking about development as a ladder with only one way to advance. Rather, think about career growth as a jungle gym, with many ways for employees to explore and grow. You can assure your hard-charging talent that this is not doublespeak for “wait your turn,” but a true opportunity for professional growth. Just ask the 823 executives who were surveyed about what helped unleash their potential the most. 71% cited stretch assignments, opportunities to learn and demonstrate new skills.

Here are four ways you can create a “culture of opportunity” within your organization:

1. Determine if an additional manager is really justified.

I recognize that this might seem obvious, but under the pressure to retain employees, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that adding a new manager is about how much needs to be managed. A promotion decision should never be led by an employee’s readiness to be promoted. You may have a promotion-ready, high-performer but no position for them to be promoted to. What do you do when there is no spot on the next rung of the ladder? Think jungle gym, which offers limitless opportunity for growth and new experiences while your employee waits for the right internal opportunity to come up. Be honest with the employee about the current limitations, but also about the organization’s commitment to their growth. Consider asking them to serve as a mentor to new employees or have them play a role in team communications. I always encourage people to “dress for the part” they want. Give employees opportunities to perform at the next level even before they get there.

2. Think about the nuts and bolts of good leadership.

Before you consider promoting your high performing salesperson or your brilliant engineer, think about what leaders actually do. While subject matter expertise is always valuable, a supervisory position requires a completely different set of skills than those that make someone a great individual contributor. A manager’s role in an organization is much more than a title or a box on an org chart. Managers need to hire employees, develop talent, evaluate performance, translate strategy into goals, manage budgets, solve problems, and so much more. Furthermore, effective leadership is not just what a leader does, but how they do it. Volumes of research have been published regarding the qualities and characteristics of strong leaders, most having to do with emotional intelligence – self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Your highly competent engineer may be ready to take on more, but without strong soft skills, you may be setting her up for failure. A stretch role somewhere on the jungle gym is a great way to keep that employee engaged while giving them experience with some part of a manager’s role. Perhaps have them launch an Employee Resource Group or become the interface with internal departments. The experience will be enlightening to both you and the employee.

3. Develop a good individual contributor path.

Not all talent is destined for people management. As our work becomes increasingly technical, it makes sense to build a dual career ladder for individual contributors. Often used in professions like engineering or software development, the concept of an individual contributor track can be applied to many functions including sales, finance or even HR. Our senior individual contributors serve as process managers, subject matter experts, problem-solving gurus, content creators, etc. As we think about the multigenerational workforce, these roles are not just for those who “can’t hack it” in management. They can be great options for strong people leaders who may need to temporarily step away from management to prioritize commitment issues outside of work. However, I would avoid using the individual contributor track as a one-off solution to a talent challenge. To gain value from this concept, the dual career ladder should be a well thought out part of your structure and performance management system.

4. Don’t forget about basic rewards and recognition.

An HBR study found that “82% of employed Americans don’t feel that their supervisors recognize them enough for their contributions.” In many company cultures, promotion is the most visible form of employee recognition. The result? Many employees pursue promotions that they don’t actually want or that they may not be ready for. One way to combat this misdirected ambition is to bolster other types of employee rewards and recognition. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The important thing is that leaders get to know each employee’s “recipe,” or the ingredients that keep someone motivated and satisfied in their job. From private praise and public acknowledgment, to pay increases and paid-time-off, finding the right form of recognition will not only improve employee retention but will take the pressure off a limited number of promotion opportunities.

Career development can sometimes feel like a game of musical chairs – never enough seats for all of the players. Create more growth opportunities by jumping off of the career ladder and on to the jungle gym. To learn more about creating a culture of opportunity, contact me at or (917) 612-8571.