“Careers are a jungle gym not a ladder” ~ Sheryl Sandberg
I love reading and I am currently re-reading “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. I rushed through it last year or so and there is only so much justice you can do to a book when you are pregnant and tired.
One of the things that stood out for me the second time around is that Sheryl posits that a career is not a ladder, it’s a jungle gym. It is not always the case that a career is as straightforward as even steps upwards in a straight line.
Sheryl, who is the COO of Facebook, describes her own career as “A jungle gym scramble… I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today.” For one thing, her current boss, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, was only seven years old when Sandberg graduated from college.
Her experience seemed incompatible with Silicon Valley and in fact, a high-level Silicon Valley executive whom she doesn’t name told her that “her company would never even consider hiring someone like me [Sheryl] because government experience could not possibly prepare anyone to work in the tech industry.” Undeterred, Sandberg contacted Eric Schmidt, who she had met several times while working at the Treasury, and who had just become CEO of a then relatively unknown company called Google.
The job Google offered her sounded less prestigious than those she had applied for elsewhere, but when she voiced this concern while seeking advice, Schmidt told her what she describes as the best advice she received and advice for which she is eternally grateful; “‘If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.'” It is not what title or prestige the position will give you that should be a determining factor in whether you make a move. That is simply an ego boost. It is the potential for growth that matters, whether it’s in the company as a whole, within a division or team, or in a position with a high demand for your skills.
Looking back on the 9 years I have been working, I definitely see more of a jungle gym situation than a ladder. I started by studying for a Masters Degree in Tax because I needed a special skill over and above my law degree in order to break into the job market. Law firms wouldn’t have even looked at me twice because of the restrictions around hiring foreigners so I looked into what industries didn’t have that restriction. My first job was as a tax consultant in an audit and advisory firm. Me. The girl who would cry when her accounts teacher walked into the classroom. From there I shuffled sideways within the same company into a “lower” junior legal advisor position. It was meant to be temporary but it was more interesting than tax so I did my best to add enough value to be considered as a permanent addition. There was a lot of commercial law work. A law degree doesn’t do much to teach you the practical part of applying the law so I experienced a 2-year learning curve full of lots of trying and very little excellence. Eventually, I got the hang of it but I wasn’t sure that I was happy. There wasn’t much room to grow and I wasn’t really enjoying commercial law.
Somewhere along the line, a senior position in the statutory services department opened up suddenly. It had to be filled instantly while they advertised for a replacement. I knew nothing about corporate law in the real world let alone how to be a real-life company secretary but I was sent there to bridge the gap. I googled the qualifications and saw that I wasn’t qualified for the job. The law degree wasn’t enough. I was nervous. Two days in the new department was all it took for me to realise that I had finally found my niche. I threw myself into learning and delivering so I could prove I deserved a chance. One month in, armed with suggestions to improve the ailing department, proof of what I had managed to teach myself up to that point and at least a dozen complimentary emails from pleased clients, I proposed that they give me 3 months to try my hand at leading the department. It was a huge ask and they would have been perfectly justified in saying no. Be that as it may, the department was ailing and there were no “more” qualified candidates immediately available so I guess preparation met opportunity and I got lucky. They said yes. I will forever be grateful for that yes. Suddenly I was the youngest and most underqualified HOD in the building. I purposed to upskill academically while gaining both management and corporate law experience. I actually wrote down a plan. 18 months later I was a lawyer with a chartered secretary (corporate law specialty) qualification who was really comfortable with the type of work I was expected to do. I had snuck into middle management and found a way to stay.
The journey continued.
By virtue of interacting with a lot of clients, I encountered an opportunity as a company secretary in the gambling industry with a significantly better salary than what I was getting plus incredible room for growth tempered by zero knowledge of the industry and a level of seniority that scared me half to death. My mentor told me honestly that I was hopelessly underqualified for the job and she couldn’t understand why it had been offered to me… she was right. Neither could I. I started thinking that maybe she was right and I should turn it down before I made a fool of myself. The logic seemed irresistible. My husband-then-boyfriend wouldn’t hear of it. He said when an opportunity like this comes knocking you don’t say no. Just jump and figure it out. So I did.
This chapter of my career is still playing itself out but that was the best career advice I have ever received.
It has definitely been a jungle gym and all indications are that it will continue to be. What Sheryl is confirming is that sometimes in order to go up we need to take a step or two down or a step or two sideways or let go of one bar before we fully hold the next because it is the rare individual who encounters a journey as simple as a straight ladder to the top.