Success Stories

You're Thinking About the Career Ladder All Wrong

My experiences breaking through the glass ceiling showed me there is no one ladder to success.
You're Thinking About the Career Ladder All Wrong
Image credit: Ingrid Rasmussen | Getty Images
Guest Writer
CEO of Crimson Hexagon
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The questions aspiring CEOs ask about how to get to the corner office are all wrong -- especially for women. Newly minted professional women ask for tips on breaking the glass ceiling, finding a work-life balance and plotting out every rung on the ladders they hope to climb. Alas, no ladder looks the same. If you want to move up, you have to find one foothold after another, pushing forward from the places where you happen to find yourself.

Related: This Tech Founder Was Often the Only Woman in the Room When She Started Her Company. Here's Her Advice for Young Entrepreneurs.

This is how I did it. It's not conventional. Along the way, the unlikeliest places and moments pushed me forward. It's been a process of constant learning, but somehow a ladder emerged that worked for me. Each step along the way taught me numerous lessons, but four stick out as turning points that helped me develop the career I have -- I hope they can do the same for you.

Don't be afraid to change direction -- a lot.

The scene: Cattle ranch, Australian Outback

My first professional job after college was at a Sydney law firm. Law was not for me, but it did connect me with the owner of a ranch in Bendemeer, New South Wales, Australia, who was looking for a short-term manager. One day, after sending a truck full of cattle to market, I was chagrined to discover that cattle prices had dropped dramatically. Luckily, the ranch owner had hedged on the futures market, which I'd never heard of before. This was the beginning of a long-term fascination with markets -- and I was hooked.

I swapped boots and jeans for blazers and heels, and headed to the Sydney Futures Exchange. As one of three women floor traders at the time, we proved ourselves to be as quick on our feet as our male colleagues. Without taking that first law firm job, without being a ranch hand, I may never have discovered my passion for markets. I didn't hit it the first time, but I did hit it.

Related: Stop Letting Criticism Limit Your Success and Reclaim Your Confidence

Never assume you can't.

The scene: J.P. Morgan

I spent the majority of my career building and running global businesses at J.P. Morgan, where I initially assumed there was a ceiling for women. That changed when my boss's boss -- a woman -- was promoted to managing director, a role I thought was reserved for gray-haired old men. The dimensions on my mental career ladder lengthened and eventually I was promoted to managing director -- thankfully, well before my hair turned gray. In fact, the promotion came while I was out on maternity leave.

Make no mistake, there is a glass ceiling in many organizations and industries. Acknowledge that, but then it's up to you to work to achieve your goals. Never assume you can't get to a certain level just because of your gender. Go into every situation thinking you can succeed (just have your eyes open). If you do run into a glass ceiling, deal with it as best as you can -- through HR, discussions with managers, whatever it takes.

Related: How to Lead Like a Woman

Don't compromise your priorities.

The scene: My desk, 4:30 a.m.

My working habits were not conventional for J.P. Morgan, or the 1990s. Before the sun rose over Wall Street, I was in my office, coffee in hand so I could leave 12 hours later and make it home for dinner with my kids. When my colleagues cruised in hours afterward, they had no idea how long I'd been there each morning.

Being home early enough for family dinners was something I wasn't willing to give up. Eventually, through a lot of communication, understanding and trust, my boss and I came to an agreement that fit us both. For example, instead of asking me to "get this to me before the end of the day," he began to trust me to get something onto his desk by 7 a.m. the next morning.

I was able to succeed and keep this critical family time by getting creative, clearly articulating my preferences and proving that I was trustworthy. I was still working long hours, of course, but in the end, the arrangement worked for the company and me.

Related: How We Can All Elevate Women and Give Them a Voice in the Business World

Don't lose sight of the long term.

The scene: Three days alone in the wilderness

During a period of significant change in my life, I signed up for a weeklong wilderness experience that culminated in a three-day vision quest. Giving myself the time and space away from those day-to-day tasks that fill up the minutes allowed me to focus on my long-term goals. Then, rather than merely making a next-steps decision, I was able to see the end game, and how to achieve it.

I went back to J.P. Morgan with a clearer mind. One of my obligations was participating in a diversity steering committee, but it was moving interminably slowly. My vision quest paved the way for an alternative route for women to get to the top in business: supporting women entrepreneurs. After all, such companies already had women at the top; now we just had to make sure they were successful. From this vision, I found my passion -- providing venture capital to women entrepreneurs -- and struck out on my own to found Golden Seeds.

If there is an overarching takeaway from these experiences, it's that the whole corporate ladder business is a myth. There is no single ladder -- for women or for men. The rungs show up where and when you might least expect them. It's your choice whether to jump or pass on any given opportunity.

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