Suppose there's a ladder, and lots of people are climbing it. What would that be like for those doing the climbing?
First of all, climbing a ladder is about moving up. The more people move up, the higher they are compare to others. As they are higher, they have to look down on others below, and those below have to look up to them. The higher they get, the more people they have below them. It is clear to people where the next step is.
Climbing up vertically can be rather hard work. Also it can be a dangerous affair, as if you have a few wobbles and loose your footing you could come crashing back down to earth. Others below you on the ladder might be quite keen to see you fall so they can move further up and take your position. Others might be patient and simply wait passively until you move further up. In either case people are hot on each others heels, as unless they are at the top of a ladder they are always following someone.
And the thing about ladders is that there are only two directions, up and down. So once people get to the top there is no other direction to go but down. Also unless you're the one who owns the ladder and first put it up, you are climbing a ladder that is someone else's. You may not even be able to see what it's like at the top. If you do end up getting further up the ladder, you may then realise that you are on the wrong ladder and have to take a fall before starting to climb a different ladder. And although there is some variety in ladders, they are generally pretty similar.
You may decide that you have had enough being on someone else's ladder and that you want to get your own. This may sound like a good idea, but it's worth noting that it would be a lot of hard work as you'd have to find people who are willing to follow you and be below you, yet still be willing to hold the ladder steady to support you as you go up.
So now lets look at paths. Suppose there is a path, and lots of people are on it. What would that be like for those on the path?
Paths are about moving forward. People generally move along at the pace that suits them. Those who want to move faster can do so, and if they are behind someone who is going slower they can always go around them rather than having to slow down or stop.
Paths go off in different direction. They turn corners, and they have forks that each go off separately. Some people may prefer to go in one direction, some may prefer the other. Some may prefer to get off the main path and make their own. It may not be so clear what the next step is, as there are more choices.
Generally it's easier to walk along a path than climb a ladder. More people are built to be walkers than climbers. Some paths may be uphill, some sideways, some downhill, but the main thing is that people have choices to which direction to go. From time to time they may stop, or even take a step back to get perspective of where to go next.
Many people can be on the same path, and people can take different positions on the path. Some may be ahead, some behind, but unlike ladders people can travel down a path side by side. At the end of the path there are choices, back where you came from, or off on a different path.
Path and ladder metaphors closely match the real experience of these two different concepts of career progression. The descriptions I have made are simplified and there are many more variables to consider, but usually they are enough to give people a pretty good idea of what suits them. Some may prefer the structure of ladders, others the flexibility of paths.
So with the path and ladder metaphors in mind, which suits you better?