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

A leading authority on women’s leadership, Jo Miller is a sought-after, dynamic, and engaging speaker, delivering more than 70 speaking presentations annually to audiences of up to 1,200 women. Her expertise lies in helping women lead, climb, and thrive in their corporate careers. Jo has traveled widely in Europe, North America, Asia Pacific, and the Middle East to deliver keynotes and teach workshops for women’s leadership conferences, women’s professional associations, and Fortune 1000 corporate women’s initiatives. 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.

25 Questions to Ask a Mentor

Whenever I’m asked “What are some of the best questions to ask a ...

Four Types of Questions To Ask Your Mentor

Have conversations with your mentor gotten a bit repetitive lately? Perhaps you approached ...

25 Songs For Your Leadership Playlist

What are your all-time favorite leadership songs — the ones that make you ...

How to Shut Down a Colleague Who Takes Credit for Your Work

Has this ever happened to you? You’re in a meeting and the unthinkable ...

5 Ways to be a Leader, Not a Manager

Have you ever wondered about the difference between a manager and a leader? ...

11 Leadership Lessons Learned

Here are 11 lessons I’ve learned about leadership—mostly from much-admired colleagues, and just ...

100 Leadership Qualities

What are your leadership strengths? That’s a question I ask in a survey ...

10 Killer Leadership Skills: The Great Differentiators?

Last week at Hallmark I hosted a couple gentlemen from a partner company. ...

Influencing Without Authority—Using Your Six Sources of Influence

I am in the difficult situation of being unofficial project lead, responsible for ...

9 Traits of Exceptional Leaders

Truly great leaders are hard to come by, but it seems everyone thinks ...

Unhappy at Work? Persuade Your Boss to Redefine Your Job.
Unhappy at Work? Persuade Your Boss to Redefine Your Job.

Every morning, Jonas backs into a parking spot at work so he can leave faster

If You’re Not Seizing Stretch Assignments at Work, You’re Doing It Wrong.
If You’re Not Seizing Stretch Assignments at Work, You’re Doing It Wrong.

These bonus opportunities have the power to boost your leadership cred and wholly transform your

The Case for Why Millennial Women Should Job-Hop
The Case for Why Millennial Women Should Job-Hop

There are strong arguments for and against the debated practice, but for millennial women, job-hopping

Infographic: How to Slay a Stretch Assignment
Infographic: How to Slay a Stretch Assignment

Recent years have been full of talk about how to elevate women at work. Have you

Panel Presentations: Does Speaker Order Really Matter?
Panel Presentations: Does Speaker Order Really Matter?

On speaker panels, does the panelist order matter? If you’ve ever attended or spoken on

4 Tips for Failing Forward
4 Tips for Failing Forward

After you make a mistake, it’s easy to focus intently on your defects. And then

Press Release: Be Leaderly’s Selena Rezvani Wins 2019 Croly Award for Excellence in Journalism
Press Release: Be Leaderly’s Selena Rezvani Wins 2019 Croly Award for Excellence in Journalism

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—July 9, 2019—The General Federation of Women’s Clubs is pleased to honor Selena

4 Steps to a Flexible Work Arrangement
4 Steps to a Flexible Work Arrangement

Are you hungry for a little more flexibility in your day?  If so, you’re not

Dealing with a Bossy Coworker
Dealing with a Bossy Coworker

You might expect the occasional “order” or “command” from your boss. But it’s a whole

Press Release: Be Leaderly Wins Gold & Silver at the 2019 Stevie Awards
Press Release: Be Leaderly Wins Gold & Silver at the 2019 Stevie Awards

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—June 11, 2019—Be Leaderly, a globally recognized provider of women’s leadership development and

Ask Jo: How can I thank my mentor?

Question: I have an incredible mentor. She ...

Teamwork is a Skill. It Takes Practice!

Everyone wants to lead, or be a ...

It’s Worth the Risk (I promise)

This is Sarah. She’s one of my ...

100 Leadership Qualities

What are your leadership strengths? That’s a ...

Leaderly Quote: Great Leaders Know When to Step Aside

“Great leaders know when to step aside.” ...

At Be Leaderly, our mission is a simple one: To provide proven career strategies that help you lead, climb, and thrive as a rising woman of influence. If you’re ready to lead, we’re here to support and inspire you.

Copyright 2019, Be Leaderly