Reasons Not To Climb the Corporate Ladder

Written by lewsauder

May 28, 2013

corporate ladder

When not to climb the corporate ladder

My wife is a middle school teacher who loves her job.  It’s not a career that one usually thinks of for being in line for promotions or moving up in the hierarchy.  But it’s actually very common.

Many teachers go back to school to get their master’s degree.  Some do it simply to move up the pay scale; others to it to move into administration within the school system.  After that, some will get a PhD to become a principal or superintendent.

She resisted getting a master’s degree for years because she had no desire to deal with the politics of administration and didn’t want to do all of that work just to move up the pay scale. She just likes to teach.

I had given up on the idea of her getting her master’s degree.  Then one day she found a master’s program that was focused on teaching.  She dove in head-first to that program because the whole purpose – at least for her – was to make her a better teacher.  She didn’t want to be anything else.

Staying put on the corporate ladder

I’ve thought about that approach in the business world.  I’ve watched people drive themselves to promotions to climb the corporate ladder.  In many companies, the attitude is “up or out”, meaning if you’re not moving up, you will be moving out.

That attitude can be more common in consulting.  You set goals, or more appropriately, goals are set for you.  If you meet those goals, you merely ‘met expectations’.  In fact, if you didn’t exceed those goals by ten percent or so, you still only met the firm’s expectations.

Overshooting the goals they set for you by more than ten percent starts to exceed the firm’s expectations.  And when you exceed the firm’s expectations on a regular basis, that’s when they start considering you for a promotion to the next level.

If all you’re going to do is meet their expectations, you might be promoted, but it’s highly unlikely.  You may be stuck in your current position for a while.  For many people, there’s nothing wrong with that.  What if you love what you’re doing and you do it quite well?  Not enough to exceed the firm’s expectations, but you meet their expectations consistently.

Chances are, the top consulting firms aren’t going to let you coast like that. Up or out. Smaller firms might allow you to specialize and stay where you’re at if you’re a top performer at what you do and if they can consistently bill you out.  It depends on the firm.  Many smaller firms have been established by ex-partners from the larger firms with some of the same rules – written and unwritten.

See my related post: The Consultant’s Private Resume

A focus on happiness

Our society tends to subscribe to the up or out mentality.  If someone stays in the same position for twenty years, we tend to wonder, does that person have twenty years of experience, or one year of experience twenty times over?

If you’re in a position that you like, before you automatically start working for that next promotion, there are some questions to ask yourself.

  • Would I enjoy the new position as much once I learned the ropes?
  • Would the organization allow me to stay in this position indefinitely?
  • If I was allowed to stay in this position indefinitely, would I continue to grow and enjoy it as much as I do today?
  • Would I be okay if I was in this position until I retired?
  • If I took a promotion and hated it, would the organization allow me to move back down?

Promotions are celebrated as great things.  You’re making progress and conquering the world.  Only you can decide if that makes you happy or not.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

Lew’s Books at Amazon:

Project Management 101
Consulting 101
The Reluctant Mentor

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