A former Googler and Facebook exec says your parents’ career path is just about dead, and there’s a better way to move up in the world

libby leffler

As a college student, Libby Leffler could never have predicted where her career would take her.

Leffler worked at Google for a year before heading to Facebook, and then to Harvard Business School. Today, she’s the vice president of membership at personal finance company SoFi.

It isn’t just that financial technology didn’t really exist until recently, or that SoFi is only seven years old. According to Leffler, the career ladder – a predictable series of steps from college graduation to retirement – is all but dead.

Leffler, for her part, told Business Insider that, instead of trying to force the career ladder back into existence, “I wasn’t only focused on the next level up. I was really always drawn to things that intrigued me, gave me the chance to learn as much as I could, and gave me the opportunity to learn something new, with plenty of room for experimentation.”

Leffler added that she never shied away from, say, moving to another team within her company, even if it wasn’t a promotion per se. She started out as a client partner, then became a business lead to the chief operating officer and a strategic partnerships manager.

“The things that I learned in my previous roles, whether they were a step up or lateral in nature, have all prepared me for the opportunity I have at SoFi,” she said.

She advised others to do the same: “Sometimes this means taking that role that might be the same level on a different team, where you can learn a totally new skill, or you can change roles. Then you can level up into something else where you can leverage the new skill you learned.”

A career can look like a ‘jungle gym’ instead of a ladder

Leffler’s observations recall the concept of a career “jungle gym,” a term that’s been touted by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. (Leffler said the term is used widely at Facebook, and not just by Sandberg.)

In her 2013 bestseller, “Lean In,” Sandberg wrote that “ladders are limiting” and that “jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment.”

Meanwhile, Business Insider’s Mark Abadi reported on a Harvard Business Review article in which the psychology researcher Tania Luna and the Weight Watchers International executive Jordan Cohen said too many modern employees have a “delusional belief in the outdated idea of linear career progression.”

The career ladder, or the direct professional path, they write, “no longer matches reality. We no longer need to be good at predicting the future; we now have to succeed when the future is unpredictable.”

Leffler said that, at Facebook in particular, she rarely set her sights on a specific role. Instead, she said, “I was always looking really for, ‘Where is an opportunity for me to contribute and make an impact at the company?'”