Ronee Hagen stayed home with her kids until they were in school. She then entered the workplace as an entrepreneur and created a metals distribution business. She made it a success and sold it. At 50 years of age, Ronee entered corporate America. Last year she retired from her job as CEO and President of Polymer Group, a billion+ dollar global company.

Ronee is one of a dozen CEOs I interviewed for my upcoming book, New Rules of the Game, and there was a common theme amongst all these executives. Like Ronee, most had not climbed the traditional ladder to success. Most had traversed a jungle gym to get there.

The jungle gym metaphor was first coined by Pattie Sellers, senior editor at large at Fortune and executive director of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. Sellers said that women zig and zag their way to senior jobs instead of progressing in a linear, upward fashion.

“Women tend to view power more horizontally than men do. Many successful women view their careers as jungle gyms, swinging to opportunities, maybe laterally, to broaden their experience base. It’s a wise career strategy, especially in a world that is ever more fast-changing and unpredictable” said Sellers when we recently spoke.

In my book, I call Seller’s jungle gym concept “cross training” because my themes revolve around the similarities of business to team sports, and how learning this can benefit our careers. Whether you label it a jungle gym or cross training, it’s all the same idea: moving horizontally across functional areas makes you a broader, better executive.

I moved like that for much of my career. In my recent work at Scripps Networks, I had 5 different jobs in 15 years there – roles in distribution, international sales, new ventures, brand outreach, and chief operating officer duties. The learning was enriching. The new challenges were invigorating.

Lateral moves help to broaden us and grow our skill sets. They help us to stay fresh and add value to our companies in a completely new way. They allow us to keep moving, keep growing, if there’s a ceiling above us in a given area. For women especially they’re helpful because we may need to take off-ramps for child rearing or other caregiving, and we’re afforded more options when coming back into the workforce.

The jungle gym, cross training: this kind of career navigation is how most people make their way to the C-Suite. The best leaders are a rich composite of skills. And most have had a few birthdays, so they’ve garnered some wisdom along the way.

Don’t feel rushed to land that C-Suite job. Get some cross training and emotional maturity. Then you’ll be ready.

Susan signature


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