You work hard; you study; you get into college, get your degree (maybe even an advanced one), then land your first real job. Maybe it’s with a small firm or maybe with an institution of higher learning (it’s hard to leave school sometimes, isn’t it?). Maybe you start with a large corporation — starting at the bottom with aspirations of climbing the “corporate ladder.”
You settle into your very own cubicle — 64 square feet of independence and glory. It’s about the same size as your first apartment. Maybe you buy a plant and throw a few photos of family, friends, or pets on the wall. You may even splurge for that Ansel Adams black and white calendar.
If you are lucky (and half as qualified as the other staffers), you slowly move up. Maybe you take on your boss’ pet project. Maybe you are the only one who can figure out why the copier always gets jammed. Maybe you are just destined for greatness.
Notch by notch, rung by rung you climb, always eyeing that next position with the ultimate goal of becoming “management” or maybe even a partner one day. You strive to become one of “them” because they have it good; they make the rules. They set their own schedules and get to go to Key West for long-range tanning — I mean, “planning” — sessions.
But it’s hard. It’s competitive. For every manager there are three, four, maybe even five of “us.” It may be deceptively cutthroat. Your peers, your friends it may seem, all have their own agendas. They are probably eye-balling the top as well. They may be creating alliances in hopes of getting that next promotion. They are most likely scheming…plotting…planning. Kind of like a corporate reality show — Survivor in a three-piece suit. And who will get kicked off the island next?
Sidebar: Does anyone even wear three-piece suits anymore? If dark, denim jeans count as a “piece” then maybe. But I digress.
After a while, a few years maybe, you have made it to the middle rung. You may have more responsibility, you may oversee staff, you may get small glimpses of company financials and may now have to hit certain profit margins.
On this rung you may be able to see great distances, but know you still have work to do to be able to read that warning label:
“Danger: Do not stand on top step.”
Danger? What danger? Once you reach that step you control your destiny, right? Maybe not. Think about it. That step is less stable. It is usually reserved for miscellaneous, mundane tools, screws, and a cell phone — if there is room. Its usefulness is dramatically reduced and it is way too easy to fall off.
Your footing is solid. Your step is wide and stable. You can grab the sides to lean back, left, or right to get a perspective unavailable to those at the top or the bottom. If you feel a wiggle, you can lean forward and hold on tight. Your position is valuable to those below you and above you. Without someone on the middle rung, nothing much really happens. If it is a tall ladder, no one can reach the top without you.
Granted, if the ladder is a step stool then none of this applies. Small firms are step stools. There is only room for one person at a time while others gather around to help out.
So set the bar as high as you like, but if you find yourself on that middle rung asking if you are a “Them or an “Us,” you are neither — you are a “Thus.” And sometimes that is the perfect position to be in.
Andy Sciarabba, P.E., is a principal with T.G. Miller, P.C., Engineers and Surveyors in Ithaca, N.Y. T.G. Miller, P.C. (www.tgmillerpc.com) is a consulting civil engineering and surveying firm that serves municipal, commercial, institutional, and private clients throughout central New York. He would like to know how you like “Diversions.” Please send him a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.