Climbing the Corporate Ladder Requires a New Strategy

Climbing the corporate ladder

The moment of great anticipation has arrived. The new manager for your department is about to be announced. You once again run through the list of rungs you’ve conquered climbing the corporate ladder. Without a doubt, you meet all the qualifications the position requires and then some. It’s clear to you and most of your co-workers that you’re the best candidate for the job on paper.  

Your computer chimes announcing the arrival of an office-wide email. You hold your breath as you click the link revealing that your co-worker, Kyle, has been promoted to manager of your department. You let out your breath and do everything you can to maintain your composure even though you’re ready to scream.

Your computer chimes announcing the arrival of an office-wide email promoting your colleague who is a master at climbing the corporate ladder.

Kyle, as in the guy who roams around the office all day and barely does any work. Never mind the fact that he’s ten years younger than you and has been at the company for a fraction of the time you have. Or that he’s always asking for your help. Yeah, that Kyle. He is now your new boss.  

Besides processing the fact that someone who seems simply to skate by will now be in charge, it starts to sink in that you’ve been passed up for yet another promotion regardless of how much time you’ve put in, how well-qualified you are, and how great you look on paper. Unbelievable.  

So, what gives? Why did Kyle, who seems so underqualified for the position, get that job? Well, it’s actually pretty simple. You may have been climbing the corporate ladder rung by rung, but Kyle knows how to play the entire corporate ladder game, not just the step-by-step. He knows how to level up before completing the previous level. 

What Climbing the Corporate Ladder Means

Climbing the corporate ladder is a term thrown around with great abandon, but what does it even mean? You get a job and work your way to the top, right? Yes, but no. It’s about more than burning that midnight oil. The truth is that working hard doesn’t guarantee a promotion. It simply increases the likelihood that you’ll keep the same job. 

Without the correct strategy, forget climbing the corporate ladder; you’ll be stuck on the treadmill of corporate purgatory, which was where I found myself until I learned to be more like Kyle.  

Kyle has his black belt in climbing the corporate ladder. You know all those times you thought Kyle was slacking off by roaming the office? Turns out, those hourly walks around the office were a tactic for gaining visibility and exposure. He was taking advantage of every opportunity to be seen and make an impression. He was making connections and embedding himself in memories, so he was a natural go-to when a high-profile project came up.

How to Climb the Corporate Ladder

The corporate ladder game

If, while reading this, you’re starting to realize you’ve been going about it all wrong, don’t worry. I was 20+ years in the corporate world and in my early 40s when I finally hopped off the treadmill and started to really climb that ladder.

Dozens of Kyles have crossed my path over the years, and man, did they ever get under my skin! But now that I understand how the fruits of their actions pay off, I look back and take notes.

They each came from different backgrounds, held different positions, and worked for different companies. Still, they all maintained the same crucial common denominator of knowing how to apply the key principles to climbing the corporate ladder to fit their personalities. 

The Social Butterfly 

A casual encounter in an elevator is an opportunity to network.

This Kyle roams freely, jumping into any conversation he can. Though most of the time, it’s casual exchanges about the weather, the latest uproar in sports, or the new hit show people are binge-watching on Netflix, Kyle is planting seeds of opportunity. 

He finds a way to connect on a personal level while somehow dropping in a thing or two about a high-profile project he wants to get in on. Voila, he’s now likable and knowledgeable.  

The Early Bird 

Starting your day early at work enhances your visibility.

The most successful people practice the habit of starting their day before everyone else, and this Kyle is no exception.

Kyle arrives at the office a good hour before others. He knows this is when he can be seen at his desk getting ahead of the day and happen to bump into senior leaders in the next-to-empty office on his way to grab a cup of coffee.

It’s hard to forget a guy like that when an important project arises, and someone is needed to head it. 

Not convinced about starting your work day early? Check out Reasons You Should Start Getting to Work Early.

The Juggler

The bigger the company, the more projects and initiatives – from task forces to committees to clubs. I avoided them all because who had time to socialize? Not me. I gave all my attention to the work on my desk. That’s what really mattered.

But Kyle? Well, this Kyle saw his opportunities and ran fast and hard. He got involved with everything! Whether in charge or simply participating, Kyle made time for anything and everything that gave him exposure. 

The Inquisitor 

Asking deep and insightful questions during meetings is key to being recognized and heard.

As sure as the sky is blue, if there is a meeting with senior leaders, Kyle will find a way to ask one to three probing questions.

While I sit quietly, thinking about all the work piled on my desk, this Kyle shows he’s engaged and looking for the big picture strategy gaining visibility and a spotlight with leaders demonstrating that he is someone they should take seriously. Checkmate!

The Storyteller 

Team meetings are a great chance to showcase your storytelling skills.

For decades, my response was typically short and direct when someone asked me how a marketing program was performing. I’d share the best stat along with my overall opinion of how I thought things were going (ex: good, ok, it tanked, etc.).  

But Kyle saw situations like this as a golden opportunity to be seen and heard. He jumped at the chance to show leaders his ability to engage and communicate. Rather than dole out cut-and-dry information, Kyle came up with a well-rounded story. He included where we started, the challenges we faced in building the program, the decisions we had to make, the most insightful stats, how we planned to optimize, and our expected results. 

This type of Kyle knows how being a great storyteller will give a valuable boost while climbing the corporate ladder.

Becoming Kyle 

Climbing the corporate ladder is like a game of chess.

It took me 20+ years of working in corporate America to understand the Kyles of the world and how they advanced quickly while others, who are equally, if not more, qualified on paper, remain stagnant.

Now that I understand that climbing the corporate ladder is about working smarter, not just harder, it’s game on. 

I’d love to hear from you. What are some other ways you’ve seen a Kyle in action in the workplace? What are you doing to advance and climb that corporate ladder?

Learn how to thrive in your career while living your best life. See more career blogs.


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  1. Great information for people now joining the workforce and those struggling to get promoted. Many people believe in merit-based promotion and are stuck in the same position.

  2. Yes! They always say in business, it’s all about who you know and it’s true to some extent. But, rarely does anyone talk about how, when and where to network.

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