Corporate Ladder

Nearly everyone at a company is a permanent employee. Chances are if you are sitting reading this at work then you fall in to that category.

It involves you getting out of your bed every morning and making the reluctant trudge to your place of employment. They give you a desk, a lot of grief and hopefully a nice salary at the end of the month or else you just wouldn’t bother.

But you are the kind of person that likes to get ahead. You have read a lot of articles about how you can further your career, hopefully some of the ones on this site, and are keen to progress up the chain of command. That will involve getting some experience, some more qualifications and generally being good at your job while also sucking up to those who are likely to promote you.

It’s all part of the corporate ladder, the greasy pole. You know it is going to take many years of dedication but if you work hard and play your cards at the right time you might just end up in the penthouse office with a personal assistant, a six figure salary and a small army reporting in to you. The top of the ladder is a good place to be while you stare down at all the minions from your ivory tower.

Much less so for those who remain on the ground.


Big Trouble in Big Company

The big trouble with the corporate ladder is that it takes time. It means giving a significant part of your life away in the service of a company. Don’t in any way think that the company is going to appreciate this and if you step on a landmine, get on the wrong side of somebody powerful or just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time then it’s a long way back down the greasy pole to the bottom. It’s greasy for a reason.

Ask any of the forty something exiles who were let go in the big financial crash and have neither the skills, wide ranging experience or qualifications needed to get an equivalent role somewhere else. They got where they were because of a combination of loyalty and time served and now that they have been dumped on the corporate scrap heap they will struggle to get a decent job somewhere else. That’s the problem with being a good man manager, the world of employment has enough of them already.

What you really needed was some in-demand skills but you never got the chance in that middle of the road management position where all you were ever expected to do was tow the line and fill in staff appraisals. Now that you have been dumped out the back of the meat grinder you are just another middle aged, under skilled individual who is used to earning professional level money with no real professional level skills to speak of.

Another Way

But there is another way

Back in the day when I was but a junior I became very friendly with a Database Administrator (DBA) who was exceptionally good at his job. He explained all of this to me in a very concise way.

It simply was not possible for him to ever advance up the corporate ladder. He was simply too valuable to the organisation doing the job for which he had the skills to do for it to make sense for them to promote him. Sure he was capable of managing the team, even the department if need be, but they would never do that as they could never find anyone with the skills to replace him. What was the point taking someone with all these useful hand’s on skills and then make them sit in meetings and do staff appraisals all day? He was always going to be of more use doing what he was good at.

I was appalled by this fact. How was it fair to leave a highly talented individual in such a lowly position when he was clearly capable of contributing so much more to the organisation?

He just laughed.

He then explained that he earned more money than his boss. Chances were that he earned even more money than the next manager on the corporate hierarchy above him, perhaps even the guy on the level above that as well.

You see, what I did not realise was that I was not talking to yet another minion of the corporate machine, I was talking to a contractor.


Knowledge is power

As any savvy plumber will tell you, you can charge what you want when you are standing in someone’s bathroom and the effluent is overflowing the toilet bowl. They don’t know how to fix it and all they want to know is how to make it stop. With a short intake of breath the plumber inevitably tells them the truth. It’s going to cost them.

The plumber can do this because he has the knowledge, skills, experience and tools for the job. It might be a nice middle class bathroom that he is standing in but the class politics have gone right out the window, which by now is wide open to let the smell out. Whoever has called him may go to work in a flash suit and normally look down on a man in overalls but at this point the roles are very much reversed.

In the modern world, knowledge is power. It’s also where the money is at.

Having the choice

If you have high level expertise in a particular field, especially if that skill is in high demand with a significant barrier to entry then you have a choice to make.

On the one hand you can have a go at climbing the greasy pole. You have an advantage in that you might actually know something but it’s very much the same game as everyone else is playing and your grip on the pole is as likely to fail as anyone else. We all know where that ends.

The other alternative is rarely spoken of in recruitment. You could go freelance, contracting or consulting. Whatever word they use to describe it for your chosen profession it all means the same thing. Instead of tethering yourself to a corporate master you are striding out on your own.

You are now a mercenary, a Ronin, and you sell yourself to the highest bidder.


Eh Gringo, you pay me I come fight for you

With your big sombrero, your gaucho moustache and your big belt of bullets over your shoulder you offer your services to whatever master is prepared to pay your day rate. You are now your own man and many of the rules of corporate life do not apply.

Like many mercenaries before you, this war is only about fighting for the money. You don’t have to believe in the cause and you certainly don’t have to salute the flag or sing the national anthem. You will also earn a lot more money that the poor souls that have come to fight because they actually believe in this nonsense.

There is just one tiny problem. You have to be good, very good.

Not always suitable

It is important to stress that not everyone has this option and it depends entirely on your profession and the way it operates. You need to be in a profession that requires a significant level of training and expertise in something that is not easily done by a normal member of staff.

  • Engineering
  • Technology
  • Medical Biotech
  • Business law
  • Design
  • Accountancy
  • Internet Marketing
  • Share or commodity trader
  • Content authoring

These are just some of the professions where a freelance / consultancy / contractor market exists but there are many more. If you are very good at a trade then you may fit in to this category as well. Companies just cannot get enough of these people and the good ones can generally name their price. If you are just starting out in these professions then you will need to suck it up as an employee long enough to get the skills and experience necessary to escape the corporate prison.

Likewise you will also need to have some level of commercial acumen, be comfortable doing interviews and also capable of dealing with those mechanisms that will find you work. You are not necessarily a fully standalone business but you have one foot in employment and the other in running your own company.


But what about advancement?

It’s all about what you want in life.

If you just want the money then it’s a question of time. Those that go freelance will tend to earn more money sooner. You may be a fully qualified professional in your 20’s and in which case you can certainly earn more money than your comrades in full time employment. By the time you reach your 40’s the chances are those same comrades who have managed to pull themselves up the greasy pole sufficiently will earn roughly the same amount of money, perhaps even more. Beyond that, those that make it to the ivory tower of the corporate exec will almost certainly have a larger income than a consultant.

If you want power, or want a lot of staff reporting in to you, or just the kudos of being a big wig then it’s the corporate ladder every time. Anyone that works contract for a large company is a second class citizen, the lowest of the low. You are a mercenary and everyone is going to treat you that way. For many this is not a problem, they just think of the money, but if you are on some kind of power trip then stay clear of the independent lifestyle.

There is one exception to the rule. If you ever want to be an entrepreneur and have a go yourself at starting a company then believe it or not it is the contractors that have all the advantages. Those that stay in full time employment do certainly have access to both the corporate and entrepreneurial worlds but in reality it is the contractor who has all the things in their favour.

The down and dirty lifestyle of a fresh new start-up is a million miles away from the strategy meetings and issuing of directives of a corporate executive. The consultant also gets a company already pre-setup and a starter source of revenue that is far more suitable for tax free investment than the PAYE salary of an employee. If you have been contracting then the chances are that you know how to do a tax return, have some business contacts and at the very least know your way round a sales negotiation. A permanent employee may be very good at giving orders but will almost certainly lack the hands on skills needed to run a business.

That is quite a sweeping generalisation but the reality is that there are far more consultants starting new ventures than those coming out of a corporate background. It may be the case that the contractor has reached the peak of their earning potential and that doing their own venture is the only way forward but as someone that has been both a contractor and the CEO of a start-up I must state categorically that I could not have done the latter without doing the former.


The dirty little secret of recruitment is that for those that have skills, knowledge and experience that is in demand there is always the possibility of adopting a mercenary lifestyle and just using that knowledge to earn good money as a contractor. You have to be significantly better than the permanent equivalent but if you are then the lifestyle can provide a vastly better remuneration package and level of freedom.

For those that are fortunate enough to operate in a profession that has an established market for this kind of work it can be a much better alternative to slogging your way up the greasy pole of corporate life. If you don’t much like taking orders from someone who is obviously less intelligent than yourself it may be the only option that will keep you sane.