Why the Career Ladder Is Overrated

August 31, 2016, 4:23 PM UTC
Businesswoman at top of ladder
PhotoAlto/Milena Boniek — Getty Images

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “What’s one thing every woman should know about climbing the corporate ladder?” is written by Amy Bohutinsky, COO of Zillow Group.

Many of us expect to carve out a career deliberately and intentionally, knowing exactly what we’re doing every step of the way. When I first started out, that was my intent, too. But now I’m COO of Zillow Group (Z), a public company with 2,500 employees. How I arrived here is certainly rooted in a lot of hard work. But I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t jumped, quite dramatically, off that prescribed career ladder a couple of times.

Growing up, I was obsessed with becoming a broadcast journalist. I grew up curious and knew, from an early age, that I was destined for a career that involved asking questions and digging for answers. I chose my college by the virtues of its journalism school, and while there, spent my free time working at the campus TV station. I got the right internships and created the ideal resume. And a week after graduation, I was gainfully employed as a small-city TV news reporter in Virginia.

I imagined my first job would involve the big stories: investigative reports that would rattle the comfortable and create change for good. But I soon discovered that the work wasn’t so much about important journalism as it was about racing to broadcast live as the first reporter on the scene—hair in place and dramatic voice intact. It wasn’t exactly what I had imagined, but I wasn’t ready to quit, and I did well. After 10 months, I jumped to a larger TV market in Florida where I hoped my passion for the profession might be rekindled. But it didn’t. In fact, things just got worse.

My first day on the job, my new assignment editor sent me to report on the discovery of a two-headed shrimp. A worker at a processing plant found it on the assembly line and showed her boss, who then called the TV station. In the hopes of adding substance to the story (I pride myself on being resourceful), I interviewed not just the worker, but found an environmental professor to weigh in on the matter of this two-headed crustacean. It was horribly hot that afternoon. I was dressed in my cheap but professional broadcast blazer. My face was caked with makeup and I was sweating as I prepared to report live from the beach at 5 p.m. “The discovery, astoundingly, was a shrimp with two heads,” I told my TV audience as confidently as I could. I was 23 years old. This was my big, important story. I was mortified.

But covering the two-headed shrimp jolted me into reassessing what I really wanted in my professional life. It took me another two years to leave this profession I’d wanted for so long, but by that time, I knew I owed it to myself to try something that felt like a bigger swing.

It was early 2000, and while I was sweating away in Florida, a revolution was taking place across the country in San Francisco. It was the early, heady days of the Internet, and it seemed a hell of a lot more exciting than two-headed shrimp. I knew little about technology, but I knew I wanted to be a part. My older sister was living in San Francisco and gave me a place to stay, along with enough airline miles for a one-way flight. I concocted a plan for how to market my TV news background to emerging consumer Internet companies. As a member of the media, I figured I could get their brands into the media, too. I sort of knew this was called PR.


Fast forward, and I spent the next five years furiously building a career and a name for myself, launching consumer brands through PR—first briefly for an agency, and then on the founding team of discount travel site Hotwire.com. It was here that I met Hotwire’s young and brilliant co-founder, Spencer Rascoff, a relationship that would shape my career for years to come. But it was also here that I thought I had finally established the career ladder and the life I was looking for. Ha, or so I thought.

Things were going really well. I had a serious boyfriend, my job was still interesting, and I imagined building a great career in Bay Area-tech PR for a long time. But then I got a call from Spencer. He was then working on a new startup—something about real estate—in Seattle. He wanted me to come and help build the yet-to-launch fledgling brand. I didn’t think disrupting my life, leaving my boyfriend, and moving to Seattle would be in the cards, but something about his energy convinced me to get on a plane and check it out. When I sat down with him and other members of the startup’s founding team, within a few hours I was convinced I had to take another big leap.

Of course, that startup was Zillow, and that day was 11 years ago. I started out as a PR and marketing director, rose to chief marketing officer, and now am COO. We built our company from a fledging startup to the world’s largest and most recognized real estate brand, and now Zillow Group, a portfolio of home-related brands. And, I ended up marrying the boyfriend from San Francisco, and we now live in Seattle with our two kids.

My journey has been more climbing-wall scramble than straight shot up a ladder. I almost fell off a couple of times. But I’ve learned to be open to taking risks, and that’s been a powerful force in shaping my career. And I’ve also learned that sometimes the most inconsequential and embarrassing of moments—even a two-headed shrimp—can pay off in profound, life-altering ways.