The Corporate Ladder is Not Always a Straight Climb Up

October 27, 2016, 12:30 AM UTC

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 Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

One thing everyone should know about climbing the corporate ladder is that it is not a ladder because most careers aren’t a straight shot to a pre-determined destination.

It’s perfectly fine that we simplify our journey when putting it on a piece of paper, but it can be misleading to people looking for role models, particularly if it leads them to believe they are on the “wrong path” because it isn’t straight.

I have found that most careers are like a mountain climb. Learning to embrace the inevitable twists and turns or what you might think are side-steps in your journey is key to getting to the top. This is simply part of the climb. Remember, just because the path isn’t straight, doesn’t mean it isn’t going to get you to the top. Everyone knows that the “scenic route” is more interesting than the fast lane, anyway!

So here are some tips for your climb to the top:

Define your mountain.

When you are considering your career path, it is important to know what mountain you want to climb. I like to encourage young executives to have the discipline and introspection to define what they believe “success” will mean for them in 5, 10 or even 20 years. If it’s only a title or an amount of money, beware. Think broader. Success in business is not directly correlated to success in life. As an example, through this process, one of the things I envisioned for “my” success was to have amazing life experiences.

Whatever your “top” looks like, you must be proactive to create the future you have envisioned.

Follow your path.

Shortly after I started my first job after business school, I was offered a one-year international ex-patriot position as the director of European marketing for a key business unit. I was concerned that the move could stifle my career path given the general belief that the corporate headquarters was the place to assure the executive exposure required to reach my goal of becoming a vice president at the company. Despite my initial apprehension that this move could delay my advancement, because I had pre-identified broader goals of my journey, I decided that the amazing life experience of being in Europe for a year would be worth the risk of a delayed promotion.

Because I threw myself into the new job, ultimately making a positive impact on the business, I was promoted to vice president of international upon my return, a position for which I would have otherwise not been qualified.

Embrace the switchbacks.

When Hasbro went through a reorganization some years ago that rightly shifted the company to a brand-first global focus, my position changed from the head of the U.S. Toy Division to the head of the Global Playskool Group. I had worked hard to achieve a broad scope of consumer and brand responsibilities for the U.S. market, including the boys division (e.g. Transformers) and the girls division (e.g. My Little Pony).

Expanding my geographical focus from the United States to worldwide was interesting, but the real excitement at the company was driven by the brands in the boys and girls divisions — not the preschool division. So, after accepting what I felt to be, at best, a side-step, I hunkered down and ultimately drove a turnaround for the Playskool brand culminating with being instrumental to returning the highly valued Sesame Street license to the company.

By embracing this “switchback” as an opportunity, I eventually hit the radar of a search firm that was looking for the next president of the Stride Rite Children’s Group. Their assignment: find a branded Preschool marketing expert with a proven turnaround record.

So the corporate ladder is actually a winding mountain road. Sometimes you are on a flat switchback; sometimes you are risking a rocky crevasse. There is rough weather and there are beautiful days, and the closer to the top, the steeper the climb.

May you enjoy both the journey and the eventual view from the top.

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