Are You Climbing a Ladder – Or a Lattice? The Surprising Answers from Three Women Leaders

When it comes to moving forward in your career, there are two divergent paths: the ladder and the lattice.

You’re already familiar with the traditional approach, the career ladder, which is characterized by a single pathway upward through a corporate hierarchy.

The second paradigm is the “career lattice”. Cathy Benko, Vice Chairman with Deloitte, coined the term to refer to a career trajectory that offers multiple pathways for career growth. This includes upward, lateral, and even downward moves, where ladder-climbing can play a secondary role to other factors such as skill acquisition, long-term career, job satisfaction, and home life.

With the career ladder model, you either move up – or you stop moving. In the lattice model, there is greater flexibility, including options that might fit better with different phases in your life and career. You can move faster or slower, change directions, or switch tracks.

Which of these paradigms fits best for you at this phase in your career?

Climbing a ladder or a lattice?

In a recent women’s leadership webinar, Alternate Career Paths: Up Is Not the Only Way Forward, I asked the  guest speakers which model best fit their career path to date. These three executive women had carved out unique and nontraditional paths to career advancement, making great choices that ultimately led them into to leadership roles and rewarding careers.

I asked them to consider these two competing career-advancement philosophies, and describe the approach that has molded their career path thus far.

The answers surprised me! Not one of these execs felt that their career path had been a linear ladder climb. Instead, they said, their career paths were lattices or a combination of ladder and lattice:

Subtle Shifts for Deeper Growth: Liza Cuevas

Liza Cuevas is Senior Director of HR with Citrix Systems, bringing over 20 years experience as a strategic business partner to engineering organizations for technology companies including Yahoo!, Palm, Brocade, and Apple.

In her early career, Liza Cuevas’ path closely resembled the ladder, as she set out to establish her career in human resources management. When she had made her mark and built her brand as a strategic HR business partner, Cuevas’ priorities shifted. “With time,” she explains, “I found it was really more about a lattice.”

Cuevas now looks for opportunities where she can add value, have influence, and work with great people. “I have shifted over time from going straight up.”

Her preference now is for building her capabilities, creating value for the organizations she supports, and maintaining versatility in her toolkit of skills and expertise. “I have four children, including two adult children, and a ranch in southern California.” Cuevas added, “I want to be able to work remotely at times and to have enough flexibility to also enjoy life and have fun. Those are the big criteria for me right now.”

First Half Lattice, Second Half Ladder: Mike Fitzgerald

Mike Fitzgerald is VP of Research and Development at JDSU where she leads a global organization of 500 engineers. Her career of 29 years includes leadership positions in general management, mergers and acquisitions, operations, and engineering.

Fitzgerald characterizes the first half of her career as “all lattice”. She explains, “I was interested in having jobs that were challenging and as long as there was a good challenge, I was happy,” adding, “I only started looking around if I got bored. I loved product development so I was really interested in learning the various aspects and roles that would help me understand how to do product development better at my company.”

In the latter half of Mike’s career, she found her path narrowing down to more of a ladder. “There is not very much lattice left—pretty much only ladder at this point. So I would characterize it as first half lattice, last half ladder.”

Truly Lattice: Wini Wu

Wini Wu is founder and President of Strategic Regulatory Partners. She serves as a strategic advisor to the medical product industry, helping them integrate business and regulatory strategy. Prior to starting her own company, Wu had a 17-year career with Medtronic, most recently as VP of Regulatory and Medical Affairs.

Wu considers her career path to have been mostly a lattice. “I moved between industries. I have taken roles in large and small companies in different functional areas,” said Wu, who is quick to point out that her upward career movement was probably slower than if she had chosen to stay in one company and functional area.

But, Wu explained, “The experience of moving across always expanded my scope, increased my professional network, and increased my learning. Right now with my consulting, it’s truly a lattice. I am having a lot of fun.”

The ladder or the lattice?

The choice really is yours. Either model can lead you on a path to career growth, leadership, and a successful and satisfying career. Which paradigm best fits the phase of your career that you are in today? The ladder or the lattice?

Jo Miller

Jo Miller is a globally renowned authority on women’s leadership. She’s dedicated two decades to helping women advance into positions of influence by leveraging their leadership strengths. Based on her work with hundreds of thousands of women, she developed a pragmatic and powerful roadmap that guides women to become the leaders they aspire to be. Jo shares this proven process in her book Woman of Influence: 9 Steps to Build Your Brand, Establish Your Legacy, and Thrive (McGraw Hill, 2019.)

Jo is CEO of leadership development, consulting and research firm Be Leaderly. Learn more about her speaking engagements at and follow @Jo_Miller on Twitter.

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