Sarah Ellis and Helen Tupper
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Helen Tupper: When we met at university 20 years ago, we made for unlikely friends. I'm an extrovert who gets involved in everything and talks to anyone,

Sarah Ellis: ... and I'm an introverted ideas person who finds extroverts energizing but a bit intimidating.

HT: Despite our differences, we both had an ambition to climb the ladder and have a successful career.

SE: We were motivated by how far and how fast we could progress, and we thought that our route to the top would look something a bit like this. And in those first few years of work, we were all about promotions and pay rises. We were preoccupied by the positions that we held and how senior our job titles sounded. And on the surface, everything seemed to be on track. But we started to get the sense that the ladder might actually be holding us back. The obvious next step wasn't always the most appealing, and we were both excited about exploring opportunities that weren't necessarily based on what we'd done before. It wasn't what we'd anticipated, but our careers had started to look and feel much more like this. Squiggly.

HT: A squiggly career is both full of uncertainty and full of possibility. Change is happening all of the time. Some of it is in our control, and some of it's not. Success isn't one-size-fits-all. Our squiggles are as individual as we are. And for me, that's meant a career where I've moved from working on foldable credit cards in one company — they didn't catch on — to building and launching a loyalty app for another. And that one is still going.

SE: And I've moved from making magazines to working on food waste, from a five- to a four-day week so I could spend more time on personal projects and volunteering. I've already had more jobs and worked in more organizations than my dad, and he's been working for twice as long as I have. And I'm the rule, not the exception.

HT: When we started to share the idea of squiggly careers with people, we were surprised by how much it stuck. It seemed to give people something that perhaps they didn't even know that they needed, a way of describing both their experiences and their aspirations. Someone even told us that they took our book, which has a big squiggle on the front of it, into a job interview, as a way of describing their career so far. But we underestimated one big problem: the legacy of the ladder is all around us. It's in the companies that we work in and the conversations that we have. It sounds like being asked in a job interview, "Where do you see yourself in five years' time?" It's the uncomfortable question of how we reward and motivate people who do a great job but don't want to be promoted. And it's the unfairness of our learning being unlocked by the level that we reach in an organization.

SE: Career ladders were created as a way to manage and motivate a whole new generation of workers — in the early 1900s. And that world of conformity and control from over 100 years ago is unrecognizable today, especially when we consider only six percent of people in the UK now work nine-to-five. We can all expect to have five different types of career. And the World Economic Forum estimates that 50 percent of the skills that we have right now won't be relevant by 2025.

HT: Ladders are limiting. They limit learning and they limit opportunity, and if organizations don't lose the ladder, they will lose their people, the people that are always adapting, that never stop learning and who are open to the opportunities that come their way. 2020 disrupted the way that all of us work, and none of us know what will happen next. But one thing we can be confident about is that the ladder is a redundant concept of careers.

SE: Losing the ladder starts with redefining our relationship with learning at work. We all now have the chance to curate our own curriculums, and we can be really creative about what that looks like, whether it's the TED Talks that you're watching, the books and blogs you're reading, the podcasts you're listening to. Your learning is personal to you. And the good news is, your development is no longer dependent on other people.

HT: Our learning can't be limited by the level we reach in an organization or only available to the fortunate few. It's not the responsibility of a single department, and it doesn't just happen when you go on a course. No one has a monopoly on wisdom. In squiggly careers, everybody is a learner, and everybody is a teacher. We've been inspired by MVF, a global technology and marketing company who've introduced a program called "Connected Learning." They blind-match their employees so that people can learn from each other without barriers like what job they do or who they know getting in the way. Their CEO, Michael Teixeira, told us, "Everybody is in charge of their own learning here. We all learn from each other and with each other, and we're much better off as a result."

SE: In squiggly careers, we need to change our perspective on progression. The problem with career ladders is that they only go in one direction, and you can only take one step at a time. If progression purely means promotion, we miss out on so many of the opportunities that are all around us. We need to stop asking only, "What job comes next?" and start asking, "What career possibilities am I curious about?"

HT: Exploring our career possibilities increases our resilience. It gives us more options, and you create more connections. We see how we can use our strengths in new ways and spot the skills that might be useful for our future. We can all start exploring our career possibilities. It might be an ambitious possibility that you don't feel ready for yet. Or perhaps it's a pivot that feels interesting, but just that bit out of reach. Or maybe it's a dream that you've discounted. The most important thing is that you give yourself the permission to explore.

SE: And this is not a one-way street. We need support from the people that we work for and the organizations that we work in. And we've seen how this can work in practice at a food manufacturer called Cook. They have something called the "Dream Academy." And in this academy, their colleagues can explore any career that they're intrigued by, in or out of the organization, and even rediscover abandoned ambitions. It could be to try stand-up comedy, to write their first children's book, to move from marketing to finance, become the CEO. Nothing is off the table. One employee said, "The Dream Academy didn't open doors for me. It helped me to have the confidence to open them for myself." In career ladders, our identity can become about the titles that we've held, rather than the talents that we have. Everyone is talented, and we can use those talents in many ways. We don't need to constrain our careers. In the words of my favorite band, Fleetwood Mac, "You can go your own way."

HT: One of the things that sticks with me from my time at Microsoft is that I'd go into the office, and I'd see a sign that said, "Come as you are and do what you love." And this was more than just words on a wall. As a non-techie with a podcast on the side, I certainly brought something different to the organization. But my uniqueness was embraced, and there was no pressure to fit a perfect mold. I felt like I could be open about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, even if that was different to everybody else. In squiggly careers, there is room for everybody to succeed. And no two squiggles are the same. The ladder has been holding us back for far too long. But it's not easy to change something that's been around for over 100 years. What we need now is more than a radical rethink. We need a radical redo, and change comes from action.

SE: Together, we have an ambition to make careers better for everyone. And we've seen just what's possible when people let go of the ladder. We see people who define their own success and take control of their careers. And we see organizations who benefit from adaptable employees who are curious, confident and continually learning.

HT: We want to ask you to become an advocate for squiggly careers. You might be a manager who could help somebody to explore their career possibilities. Or maybe you’re a mentor and you can give someone the confidence to see how they can use their talents in new ways. And now that we're all teachers, let's share what we know so that everybody can succeed.

SE: It's finally time for us all to step off the ladder and into the squiggle.