When you’re younger, climbing the corporate ladder seems smart. Large companies provide you a structured path to success. Biglaw is a great example of this. Every year you get an automatic promotion (first year, second year, etc.) with an associated pay bump. It feels like you’re Headed In The Right Direction.
Somewhere along the way, something changes though.
You start to realize that this game of climbing the corporate ladder isn’t what it seems. It’s a constant struggle to move up, and you have trouble understanding why. It’s just such a grind.
That’s because moving up at a corporate ladder job involves rules that no one ever explains to you directly. Basically, getting promoted to the next level, ie. making equity partner, is based on factors you didn’t expect.
Like bringing in clients. Or having expertise in a practice area that’s high in demand. You’ve done a good job at all the shitwork you were supposed to do, yet the rewards don’t come. Meanwhile, you see some of your peers get promoted. Quickly. As juniors, they were able to dodge shitwork and focus on developing skills and expertise that helps them move up.
That doesn’t mean that doing shitwork is completely irrelevant. It’s still valuable to the organization. My point is that being good at shitwork is merely table stakes and can never be a differentiator. You have to be good enough at it to get by. But it has nothing to do with who gets to move up.
To do that, you have to be one of The Chosen Ones.
And to be chosen, you have to do a lot of things that smart & hardworking people aren’t great at. You can call it “schmoozing” or “politics” Which by the way, implies that it’s something you can control, when in reality it involves unexpected factors like your identity, appearance, or “vibe.”
Becoming one of The Chosen Ones means you’ve been selected by a sponsor—a powerful mentor who puts their credibility at risk to support you. Sponsors do things like place you on strategic matters that help you develop valuable expertise that the firm needs. They protect you. You’ll get opportunities to get in front of clients, and receive intel about the market. You’ll get visibility, so people will know your name.
All this special treatment helps you develop and creates the appearance that the game is a meritocracy. Because with all this strategic advice and guidance—The Chosen Ones actually become truly great, substantively.
How do powerful sponsors select who to help? Well, they’re human. They end up picking who they like.Which means they stereotype based on unrelated factors, like something unrelated to work that you have in common. Or, it could be how tall you are, how witty or clever you are. Basically how likeable you are.
Sponsors choose those who remind them of themselves.
Most juniors aren’t aware of this phenomenon. So they dive into the shitwork, and attempt to climb the corporate ladder. They believe it’s a meritocracy. Seniors reinforce these myths by saying things like “work hard and you’ll get promoted.”
Know what you’re getting out of your corporate ladder job
Look it’s not all doom and gloom. Corporate ladder jobs may make sense for some of you, depending on where you are in your career. Maybe it’s just a steppingstone job. Or maybe you need the salary to fund other things in your life that are important to you. Corporate ladder jobs often pay the best guaranteed comp, and give you some amount of social status you don’t get elsewhere.
If that’s you, more power to you.
But if it’s not, you should try something different. Doesn’t mean you have to quit right away. It could be trying new assignments at your day job, or side hustles on nights and weekends. Ultimately the key word here is different. You have to give up that feeling that you’re Headed In The Right Direction.
Whatever you choose to do—it has to be something very few people are doing. The more unusual it is, the better.
More on that next time.
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To find examples of this, check out Servants Of The Damned by David Enrich. It’s about Jones Day, and in telling the firm’s story, details the career paths of many of the most powerful senior partners and alumni at the firm. Many of them are capable lawyers, but at the same time, they all seemed to be The Chosen Ones early on in their careers. Usually because they shared something in common with their sponsors.
This is also why despite the success of remote work, many Biglaw firms want their people to come back to the office. Firm leaders made it by being around and available, which helped them get spotted by Sponsors. Their advice to associates to come back to the office is well intentioned because they genuinely believe that’s the only way to move up.
This is why so many big company executives are taller than average. Height is one of the many silly factors that enable juniors to become one of The Chosen Ones. We just know about it because it’s so visible. What other silly invisible factors are out there?
The principles I’ve learned from selling tech on behalf of unproven startups—rapid experimentation, iteration, and sensing when there’s a big opportunity—might be applicable to career pivots. I’m still working out a few thoughts and will publish them soon.
Even in school, it's about being one of the Chosen Ones - it's just that no one tells us this affirmatively, and we're told to develop forbearance and patience. But if you're a Chosen One, you will likely never develop your personality or yourself thru the process but instead check each box on a list. And life is not a list and when you are rudely awakened, do you now have the fortitude to recover and rebuild?
totally agree with this. i used to think that not being the Chosen One in law school/at a firm just meant i had reached the depths of my intellect (like welp, this is as smart as i get), and it was only later that i realized everything in life and career was more like dating, for better or for worse, with all of the biases and -isms that dating has, as well.