Real-Life Lessons on Climbing the Corporate Ladder

Last Updated Oct 28, 2011 6:22 PM EDT

The Corporate Ladder Is Long and TreacherousIn an era of twenty something entrepreneurs, communication overload, and instant gratification, one thing goes against the societal grain - climbing the corporate ladder. It isn't quick and, if you try to move it along, chances are it'll backfire.

And yet, when it comes to successful CEOs, there's a tendency to think they were more or less born that way, like royalty. That there's something magical or special about them. That, by the grace of God, they were endowed with powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary mortals.

While executives with narcissistic traits might bask in that sort of glory and adoration, the vast majority would just laugh it off. After all, they put their underwear on one leg at a time, just like everyone else does.

Sure, there are qualities that differentiate successful executives from the pack, but being blessed with wealth and power isn't usually one of them. They generally work their tails off, face difficult and complex challenges, and confront their fears to make it.

The overwhelming majority of successful executives are not entrepreneurial types like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Rather, they climb the corporate ladder, from bottom to top, one painstaking rung at a time.

How an executive is made
For example, Verizon Communications chairman and former CEO, Ivan Seidenberg, began his career as a cable splicer's assistant right out of high school. Likewise, AT&T's current CEO, Randall Stephenson, and former CEO Ed Whitacre, Jr., both started at the bottom of Southwestern Bell, right out of college. And while I don't know the details of how they got to the top, I do know that, in all three cases, it took decades. And I guarantee that it wasn't an easy climb.

I think it's important for up-and-comers to understand that the careers of even the most successful executives don't usually start out that way. Sometimes, it doesn't even look like they're going to make it, period. Here's a story I think you'll appreciate, courtesy of yours truly.

First off, through a strange series of events, I graduated college with a BS in physics. Since my grades weren't particularly good and I had no money, grad school was out. I worked part time at a local bank branch while I pondered my next move. That was probably the most depressing time of my life.

Luckily, my girlfriend's father was involved in a semiconductor startup on Long Island. Unfortunately, the guy wouldn't hire me without an engineering degree. So I contacted one of my physics professors, he put me in touch with the electrical engineering department, and I was admitted as a part time grad student.

Scraping together the cash was tough, but I was on a mission. There was no way I was going to spend the rest of my life working as a bank vault attendant. To make a long story short, that mission really drove me. I got straight 'A's and was admitted full time with a teaching assistantship grant. Once I finished the master's degree, I landed an engineering job designing chips at Texas Instruments in Dallas.

The excitement of landing a real job didn't last long. I soon realized I was in way over my head. Not only that, but I was a long way from home, lost my girlfriend in the move, and frankly, the realization that I wasn't in college anymore and the company was paying me to actually do something that I had no idea how to do was terrifying.

My first few reviews were mediocre and there were plenty of times when I questioned whether I had what it takes to make it. It was probably around my third year that I began to connect the dots and actually started to show some promise as an engineer and, eventually, as a young manager.

Still, it was anything but up and to the right from there. There would be a ridiculous number of obstacles over the coming decades and more than a few times when it looked like my career had reached an early plateau. Still, I never stopped fighting and climbing. I guess that's my nature.

Lessons learned

Today, 33 years after I sat in that bank vault looking out through the bars, I can look back and say I'm relatively happy about the way things turned out. But it cost me a lot, as The Corner Office readers know well from prior posts.

So, here's a word of advice for all you young up-and-comers out there:

  • The corporate ladder is long, so take it slow. If you're in a hurry, go the entrepreneurial route. Better yet, start corporate, get some experience under your belt, learn the ropes, then do your own thing. That, I think, is the best way to go.
  • There's a risk in setting your sites too high. If it's meant to be, it'll be. But, in terms of goals, you're better off setting near-term goals that are tangible, rather than over-the-top goals that are unattainable in a reasonable timeframe. Climb one rung at a time.
  • While you're not in college anymore and much is expected of you, don't be too hard on yourself. Every day in the workplace will be a challenge and an opportunity to learn. Over time, you'll amass a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience. What that means is simple: it gets easier as you go. Really.

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