As the responsibilities of leaders become more complex and ambiguous, it’s worth asking: is the straight and narrow career path still the optimal one for developing tomorrow’s leaders?
In my experience, leaders with a wider toolbox are better equipped to tackle the kinds of complex challenges that organizations increasingly face. As you ascend the ranks, the decisions become weightier, and you have less information at hand. Leaders who have traversed a diverse—and often less-linear—path can draw on their varied experiences and intuition to make more informed choices amid these information voids. This multidimensional perspective allows them to synthesize insights from different contexts, leading to decisions that reflect a deeper understanding of the business landscape.
But it’s not just about informed decision-making; it’s also about the ability to see beyond individual silos and consider broader perspectives. This is invaluable when making trade-off decisions that impact the entire organization. A leader with a diverse background is not confined to understanding the interests of their area alone. Instead, they can champion the success of the entire company, recognizing how each piece contributes to the whole. This mindset embodies the essence of true leadership, one that goes beyond functional roles and fosters organizational success.
The empathy factor
Another facet of this evolution is the role of empathy in leadership. Individuals with varied life and career experiences bring an open-mindedness that fosters empathy at a fundamental level. They can connect with and understand the people they lead, because they are drawing from their diverse experiences. This ability to empathize on a broad scale creates a cohesive and inclusive work environment, where every voice is heard and valued. This diversity of experiences also extends to diverse problem-solving approaches, fueling innovation and pushing boundaries.
In today’s dynamic business world —where we can’t even predict which jobs will be in demand later this decade — I think leaders with non-linear backgrounds will be better positioned to navigate ambiguity, complexity, and change. The traditional model of paying your dues and climbing the ladder in one area of expertise is giving way to a more dynamic and adaptable approach: the jungle gym model, where individuals experience various roles and domains, amassing a broad range of experiences.
Our approach to evaluating talent has also evolved. While past performance remains essential, the focus has shifted to evaluating future potential and adaptability. Companies are now increasingly investing in internal talent, helping employees who have don’t backgrounds in particular functions grow into those roles as a way to help them build breadth. For example, helping someone who didn’t “grow up” in marketing be able to jump into a marketing role.
This emphasis on future potential — where you’re going, not just where you have been — enables organizations to foster diversity and equity by acknowledging the value that varied backgrounds and skillsets bring.
Companies can foster the jungle gym approach by being transparent about their expectations for future leaders. Clearly outlining the mindset and experiences that contribute to leadership growth will empower aspiring leaders to map out their career trajectory more effectively. Moreover, building equity and diversity inclusion into the hiring process will encourage companies to look beyond rigid requirements and appreciate the value of diverse backgrounds and toolkits.
Navigating your jungle gym career
For those contemplating this jungle gym approach to their own careers, the journey might seem daunting. Exploring various roles, taking risks, and embracing discomfort can be challenging. However, it’s crucial to understand that a career is a marathon, not a sprint. A broader base of experiences extends your career trajectory and equips you to thrive in diverse scenarios. Remember, it’s okay to pause and explore a single level of the jungle gym before ascending further.
In my own journey, I’ve started up numerous steep learnings curves, facing self-doubt and discomfort every time. But looking back, I can recognize that this discomfort was an essential part of my growth, and the challenges I faced only propelled me forward. If you’re aiming to shape the future and make a lasting impact, the jungle gym approach can offer a blueprint for success and longevity.
The old adage from Shunryu Suzuki, the monk who brought Zen Buddhism to the U.S., holds that: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Perhaps more of us would find greater joy and fulfillment at work, if we embraced the idea of being a beginner and starting anew. The most fulfilling path in the 21st century isn’t necessarily a straight line.
The future of leadership is diverse, adaptable, and empathetic. Embracing the jungle gym approach doesn’t just redefine career paths; it reshapes the essence of leadership itself, creating stronger leaders.
Photo: Carol Yepes, Getty Images