As a 19-year-old college student, Justin Hutchens began work as a resident assistant at an intermediate care facility in Greeley, Col. Over the next 18 years he worked his way up at six different companies from a caregiver to admissions director, regional operations director and chief operating officer. In 2009 he joined National Health Investors, a health care real estate investment trust, as president and chief operating officer.
Two years later, at the age of 36, he was appointed chief executive officer.
Mr. Hutchens made his way to the top of the proverbial corporate ladder quicker than most. How? “My Dad gave me advice early in my career to always to the very best with whatever level of responsibility that I was afforded, and to take less desirable assignments that others might not want,” he says. “That approach has offered great exposure throughout my career.”
A quick climb to the top can be trying – and not everyone wants to make the trek in a conventional way.
“The culture has changed and people no longer stay at one firm for the entirety of their career,” says Ford Myers, a career coach and author of Get The Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring.
“In the 1970s or 1980s, it was assumed you’d join a company, work hard, pay your dues and climb up the ladder at that firm. Those were the unwritten rules of the game. But the world has changed.”
However, one thing holds true today: Most people still want to grow as a professional and get to the top, even if they do it more laterally.
“Most, but not all, still want to move up the corporate ladder, but climbing up isn’t always done in a straight line,” says Andy Teach, a 30-year corporate veteran and author of From Graduation to Corporation: The Practical Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder One Rung at a Time. “Some workers make lateral moves to other companies, hoping there is more room for advancement at their new company.”
Lynette Lewis, a business consultant and author of Climbing the Ladder in Stilettos, concurs. “I would agree that every person working will typically have the desire to move up, or perhaps the better way to say it is they will want to grow. Growth is a natural sign of being alive, so it is healthy to want to expand, develop, and advance both personally and professionally.”
Mr. Teach believes it’s a lot easier for employees, especially those who are part of the younger millennial generation, to move up the corporate ladder quickly today.
The baby boomer generation is known for paying its dues, and it took us a while to climb up the ladder,” he says.
“I once had a baby boomer boss who told me that it took them a certain amount of years to get to their present position and therefore it would take me the same amount of years, even though it had nothing to do with my work performance. This is no longer true. The millennials have a reputation for being impatient and for wanting to move up quickly, by switching jobs often.”
You may have to take a more roundabout path to get to the top today – but if you want to arrive quickly, there are a few things you can do. Here’s what the experts suggest:
Make a plan
“Too many people bounce through their career like a pinball in a pinball game, but in order to achieve your full potential, every person needs a plan – some sort of road map or blueprint,” Mr. Myers says. “A smart person will have a long-term career plan, which focuses on where they want to arrive at the pinnacle of their career, as well as the interim steps they’ll need to take in order to get there.” Make adjustments as you go, but implement the plan early on in your career.
Get an education
“Get the best possible education and training you can, as early as you can,” Mr. Myers suggests. “No matter what has changed, there is still no replacement for getting a head start with a great education.”
“Use all your resources to get into the corporate world,” Mr. Myers says. “Leverage your network to get in at the best possible starting point.” Networking doesn’t stop once you have the job. “The more people you know and who know you, and like you, the better,” Mr. Teach adds.