It's a Jungle (Gym) Out There: Charting Your Career as a Lifelong Adventure

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The Jungle Gym and the Ladder

In her book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg used the metaphor of a jungle gym to describe modern career progressions.1 As she explains, sometimes lateral movement is as needed and beneficial to a person's professional development as moving up another rung. Keeping one's career advancing can mean different things to different people and does not solely mean moving up a career ladder to the CIO or other similar executive position.

The jungle gym metaphor offers some wonderful possibilities as we envision our careers and plan out possible next steps. For one, jungle gyms are fun! Much more fun than ladders. They give you the opportunity to explore, stretch, grow, and hopefully be a little playful.

Herminia Ibarra, professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, describes another characteristic of the jungle gym career: it allows professionals to work in different parts of an enterprise. Exposure to new problems will require different skills and "connect you with people who see the world differently than you do."2 In this regard, the jungle gym begins to resemble a network with different connection points, each of which leads you to the next node.

The information environment has opened up many new types of jobs and will probably continue to do so. With this thought in mind, the definition of career success becomes more open to interpretation and offers professionals an opportunity to define their own standards of career success. Want to develop your entrepreneurial skills on a continual basis? Want to learn new technical skills every year? Want a job where creativity is key? Want to work in different industries or different areas of the same industry for the next two to five years? All of these options are potentially available to information professionals.

Moving on Up...or Over?

There are several key actions you can take today to invest in yourself and set yourself up for career development. Most of our suggestions are good general advice for any plan for career advancement, but they may be less obvious to a person who is less motivated to vertical advancement.

Study the Landscape

Understanding the greater organizational context of your current position can set you up for success and satisfaction in the short term while also positioning you well to take different career directions in the longer term. We likely know the goals of our individual unit or department, and we may be familiar with one or two other units with which we interact regularly. Increasing your knowledge of the overall institutional mission and its strategic direction will help you understand the broader organization and the individual units that comprise it.

While all units operate in the service of the broader institutional mission, we probably know less about the goals and current projects of other divisions and departments. Don't take for granted that you know what these are — seek out documents including mission statements, strategic plans, and assessment reports for key departments where available.

Developing this broader institutional perspective will help you think more strategically about your work today. (It is also an essential step to take if you are more interested in working your way up a career ladder.) It can expose opportunities for new work to those who are not interested in ultimately landing their current supervisor's job. Pattie Sellers, assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, is credited with originally articulating the jungle gym metaphor used by Sandberg and others.3 She describes the importance of having peripheral vision in enabling us to see career opportunities that come along and, in jungle gym fashion, be ready to "swing to them."

Another way to gain practical experience with institutional mission is to work on cross-functional teams, projects, or committees. Approach each interaction with an aim to understand how each person's contribution relates to his or her unit and how that unit's goals align with and support the broader mission. Having a discussion with your supervisor about how these cross-functional or multi-unit committees work can also be very useful. Other opportunities to branch include serving on another unit's hiring committee or developing a standing liaison role with another department.

Develop Your Skills

It (almost) goes without saying that you should continue to grow your skills in your current position. Rather than regard ongoing professional development as compartmentalized and time-consuming, consider small actions you can regularly take that will provide dividends over time.

Seeking out stretch projects where you work with new or different groups is one manageable way to work on skill development. Stretch projects can broaden your perspective, introduce you to a new dimension of the organization including its culture and language, and, importantly, introduce you to new colleagues.

Developing your skills shouldn't be seen as something that requires a herculean effort. Nor should you view skill development as a task that you can "complete" and then cross off your to-do list. Developing the habit of mindful reflection and purposeful self-guided study is one way to develop your skills and hopefully increase your confidence and satisfaction as a new manager.

Formal training is another tried and true way to continue to learn, and it does not have to be a budget buster. In addition to dedicated training programs, some conferences are beginning to offer certificate programs or other short course professional development opportunities. The EDUCAUSE Annual Conference is one such conference that has been responsive to community needs for varied types of programming. In addition, don't overlook programs offered by your institution's human resources. Some HR programs bring in well-known leadership and management speakers as well as run excellent in-house offerings. Continuing education programs and local community colleges are other options for affordable short course and certificate programs for new managers.

Grow Your Network

As mentioned previously, having a robust and wide network yields many career-enhancing dividends. In addition to providing you colleagues to learn from and to go to for information and help, a strong network can also open your eyes to future opportunities in other areas. As with growing your skills, growing your network is an ongoing activity, similar to tending a garden. You don't do it all at once or immediately, nor can you ignore it for months and return to a robust yield.

You can grow your network by volunteering in your professional organization. For example, help with the next local conference by volunteering to review proposals, to chair sessions, or to help build the website. Within your institution, serving on staff committees or staff councils can be excellent ways to extend your network internally. Your alma mater's alumni services and networking resources can also help.

At critical stages in your career, you may benefit from developing a relationship with a mentor. This might be doubly true when you are considering a shift into a different field or type of position. A mentor can answer your questions, and improve your understanding of areas you have not worked in before. EDUCAUSE publishes excellent information on how to identify, approach, and work with a mentor.


The beauty and the danger of the jungle gym career is that the possibilities are almost limitless. Career moves can take you up, over, sideways, or perhaps even back a step or two before you move forward again.

As discussed earlier, the jungle gym career metaphor has numerous positives. It can be exciting and fun to explore a wide range of opportunities. It is a natural way for learners to approach their professional life, discovering new skills and how to interact in different environments. You get to be creative in how you conceptualize your working identity.

On the other hand, the metaphor might not be for everyone and could have its downsides. There is a level of ambiguity introduced by the metaphor that could be unsettling. You will likely have to explain to family, friends, and colleagues just how your professional assignments connect. Promotions are different in this context — you will not always move up, up, up. And, finally, you have to be creative in how you conceptualize your working identity.

Whether you see your career as a jungle gym, a ladder, or through some other metaphor, the work of career development is a personal privilege and responsibility. Bel Pesce, author and tech entrepreneur, discusses careers as a network of "infinite pipes." In her 2014 TEDTalk, she exhorts listeners to be self-directed in choosing their path through this network, recognizing that they will need to continue to make deliberate choices throughout their careers. "The pipes are infinite and you're going to bump your head, and it's a part of the process," Pesce advises.4

We likewise hope to encourage our readers as they pursue their career adventures. Have fun, seek to stretch and grow, be a little playful sometimes — and even be open to making a leap every once in a while.


  1. Sheryl Sandberg, with Nell Scovell, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).
  2. Herminia Ibarra, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Watertown, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).
  3. Patricia Sellers, "Power Point: Get Used to the Jungle Gym," Fortune, August 7, 2009.
  4. Bel Pesce, "5 Ways to Kill Your Dreams," lecture presented at TEDGlobal 2014, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 2014.


  • The Center for Creative Leadership Leading Effectively podcast [].
  • Clayton Christensen's "How Will You Measure Your Life?" article (HBR 2010) and lecture (TEDxBoston 2012).
  • HBR IdeaCast — a weekly podcast featuring the leading thinkers in business and management from Harvard Business Review.
  • Daniel Pink's Office Hours podcast.
  • Robert Steven Kaplan's "Reaching Your Potential" article (HBR 2008).
  • Barry Schwartz's TED2014 Vancouver talk, "The Way We Think About Work Is Broken."

Heather McCullough is associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She currently serves as faculty for the EDUCAUSE Institute for New IT Managers.

Eric Behrens is associate chief information technology officer at Swarthmore College. He currently serves as faculty for the EDUCAUSE Institute for New IT Managers.

© 2016 Heather McCullough and Eric Behrens. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.