Downward mobility seemed an odd topic to bring up at a career advancement conference, but Jane Ballback said there are times when demotion is in a person's best interest.
"Let me tell you a nice euphemism for this," she told about 25 women in a workshop last Friday called "Up Isn't the Only Way to Advance." "This downward movement is called 'career realignment.' Isn't that nice? You haven't been demoted, you've been realigned."
Ballback, a partner in Coil Ballback & Slater Associates, a career consulting firm based in Orange, was a speaker at the eighth annual Coastline Community College Conference for Women at The Westin South Coast Plaza last weekend. Called "Get Charged, Take Charge--Connect," the conference was attended by about 800 women and featured an all-day management seminar for established career women on Friday and an all-day assortment of speakers, workshops and exhibits for a more general audience on Saturday.
Most of the Friday sessions had titles like "You're an Entrepreneurial Success--Now What?" and "Management: Functioning at the Top." "Up Isn't the Only Way" was included because "this is a current question going through a number of women's minds--must we always go on an upward spiral?" said Barbara Beckley, Coastline's dean of community services. Many women feel that when their corporate power increases, they lose too much personal time, independence and warm "human relations with other people," Beckley added.
Backing Down the Ladder
Backing down the corporate ladder is sometimes advisable, according to Ballback, "when you're in over your head" in a job that's more difficult than anticipated, if there's a "real personality conflict between you and the person you work for" or if a new management position is less satisfying than expected. "It takes a great deal of personal courage to say, 'It (accepting a promotion) wasn't a good choice,' " she said.
Yet, "sometimes the easiest way to change a (career) path is to go down," Ballback said. "Who's to say a (career) that goes down can't go around and back up?"
For those who want a complete career change, Ballback said, there's " 'outplacement'--which is a lot like realignment, but more extreme" because it means leaving both one's work and one's company. An individual can also enter "a state of moratorium" when unsure what to do next, Ballback said. "Instead of saying, 'I'm lost, I'm hopeless, I don't know what to do,' you can say, 'I'm in a state of moratorium,' " she explained.
"The whole key here is control and choice," Ballback said. "Far better that you (quit or) realign yourself, than that you let the organization do it to you."
She found herself in a moratorium about 10 years ago, Ballback added, when she decided to stop teaching elementary school. She realized, she said, that "I'm not that fond of children, especially in groups," but she didn't know what new line of work to enter. "It's very hard, as an adult, to say 'I don't know what I want to do.' So I signed up for a master's degree program (in education) to get better at what I didn't want to do any more," she said.
Ballback earned her master's degree at Cal State Fullerton, where she met Ann Coil, who was then the coordinator of the undergraduate reading skills program. Ballback eventually became an instructor in that program. In 1981 Ballback, Coil and Jan Slater (Ballback's twin sister) founded their career consulting firm.
She was able to make her last job transition, Ballback said, because she learned that her teaching skills were transferable to a nonacademic setting. "It's important to know your transferable skills if you want to move around," she said. In many cases, she added, an individual who changes positions is wise to move laterally to an equivalent, but new, job.
Ballback said her current speciality is "corporate training--believe it or not, I'm hired (by companies) to do career development for employees (because) most employees don't look at their own organization as a job market" within which to advance.
Coil and Slater specialize in working with individuals who want job changes. "Individuals who come to me frequently don't want to move up," Coil told the workshop participants. "A lot of people don't get a big pay-off" in job satisfaction from management work, she said, and about 14% of her clients choose to move "down" to less lucrative, but more satisfying, positions.
Downward and lateral career moves are now "much more acceptable than they used to be," Coil said, although "the world (still) operates on a lot of myths and stereotypes" about what constitutes job enhancement.
However, Ballback said, "the world will (accept) almost any decision if you can give analytical reasons for it . . . instead of saying, 'I'm not going to manage people all the time, I've failed,' " someone who moves down a notch on the corporate ladder can say a former job didn't match her "preferred skills," Ballback said.
Yet despite all the talk of upward mobility's potential drawbacks, at workshop's end about half the women enrolled raised their hands when asked if they were interested in increasing their corporate power and salaries. Many indicated they were in personal moratoriums about career choices, and nobody admitted to a serious interest in downward mobility.
'Sometimes the easiest way to change a (career) path is to go down. Who's to say a (career) that goes down can't go around and back up?'