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Imagine, if you will, that professionals such as physicians are flightless, arboreal creatures. That is, like squirrels, sloths, and (some) simians, they make their living in trees. Unlike birds, they have to climb up from ground level.

Yes, under some circumstances there can be leaping from one tree to another (we’ll get to that later), but for the most part, making such a switch requires climbing down, moving over, and climbing up somewhere else.

Before I go any further, let me explain the metaphor: The trees are jobs, or other employment situations (even within one’s own business venture). It’s generally desired to get as high up one’s tree as possible: Further up the hierarchy is greater compensation, better job security, etc.

There comes a point, however, where one cannot go any higher. Others are occupying the more elevated branches, climbing further would require skills and/or risks unfeasible to the individual, or one has reached the peak of the tree itself (at which point one will only be further elevated if/when the tree, itself, slowly grows).

Meanwhile, there are other trees within view. Some are taller, and/or easier to climb. One might not have been able to appreciate this when standing on the forest floor (ie, deciding which job to take, or whether to launch one’s own enterprise). But now, having attained a certain height, one might see that another tree promises, shall we say, greater upward mobility.

If one wants to act on this, however, there’s first the matter of getting out of one’s current tree. As hinted at above, there is the possibility of, squirrel-like, leaping from one lofty branch to another without needing to descend much at all (such as a radiology Department Chair in a small community hospital being recruited, or simply applying, for a section head role in a top-flight academic institution).

For most of the rest of us, getting out of a tree and starting up another means giving up whatever seniority we have accrued in our current gig…and all of the goodies that go with it…to start over at the bottom of another food chain. We might be more inclined to make the move if we expect to rapidly ascend the ranks in our new gig, if the perks of our current situation aren’t all that great, or if we perceive that our current place, no matter how good it’s being to us, is less than stable. (And thus might not be as good to us in the future, if it’s even still around.)

I’ve had this metaphor in mind for a number of years, now (I might well have referenced it in a previous column, actually), and have come to think of someone who feels stuck in a current gig as result of his progress within it as being “treed.”

Such a person is not thrilled, or even particularly happy, with his situation. He may have multiple dissatisfactions with his status quo. Indeed, he might point out ways in which his situation has deteriorated from what it once was (increasing demands on his time/effort, diminishing compensation, reduced clout, etc.), or foresee such downgrades in his future. Maybe he simply thought he’d be climbing higher than it now looks like he’s going to.

Yet, if he were to bail out and start over somewhere else, he’d have to give up some of his current perks to do it…and he might not have sufficient confidence that he’d eventually do better elsewhere. Perhaps, in part, because he only expects to be working for another few years, or he hopes to reduce his hours, and neither move would be conducive to much advancement in a new gig.

Some folks seem to actively avoid climbing at all, with the express purpose of avoiding treeing themselves (or, at least, they offer it as a rationalization as to why they have not advanced since the day they were hired). They have sized up their situation, realized that it’s not going to lead to bigger and better things, and in their minds already have one foot out the door.

I’ve often wondered why more employers don’t make some effort at treeing the team-members they want to keep around. True, in times of a lean job market, there might not be much of a need; an employer can have the attitude of “There’s the door if you don’t like it here; I can have you replaced in a day.” Even then, though, if the individual who stands to leave is probably better than whoever his replacement would be, why risk making the swap?

It might instead be a good plan to boost such personnel assets a decent measure above the forest floor…give them something that makes them want to stay with you, and/or the promise of further ascension for continued loyalty. There was a once widespread phenomenon called “partnership” that embodied this…but that’s a rant for another time.

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