Career Path

The Case for Making a Lateral Move

Demographics and new corporate structures are rewriting the rules for getting ahead.

For years, career advancement connoted images of climbing a ladder: With each position you took, you earned a loftier title and heftier paycheck.

Scratch that image from your mind. In today’s world, many companies and career coaches are telling employees to look at their careers as lattices instead of ladders. That’s because people (ahem, baby boomers) are working longer, making it difficult—and unrealistic—for employees down the chain to move up. At the same time, organizations are make conscious efforts to flatten their layers, thanks to innovations within the workforce and people working in teams more often.

“Parallel moves are quite important in orchestrating your career development,” says Katy Caselli, an organizational psychologist in North Carolina and founder of the corporate training firm Building Giants. “If you’re well-rounded and have gained experience in different areas, you can become the natural choice for a promotion.”

Companies and career coaches are telling employees to look at their careers as lattices instead of ladders.

These changes often mean careerists are now forced to consider lateral moves to position themselves for plush roles. But there can be hidden advantages this way, too. Indeed, boards increasingly consider CEO candidates well equipped only if they’ve spent time in accounting or marketing, but also with stints in the operations and M&A departments.

Lateral moves are also rising as worker motivation changes, with more employees wanting their careers to have purpose. A survey by Cornerstone OnDemand, a cloud-based talent management company, found that 89% of respondents said they would consider making a lateral move with no financial incentive. When asked why, more than half of them said they wanted to find greater personal satisfaction. Many workers also take side steps to get assigned to a superstar manager, or to avert disaster by anticipating if their department will be getting chopped, career consultants say.

Gender, unfortunately, also is playing a big role. Business psychologists say women make more lateral moves than men because they’re generally more risk averse—even when they’re more than qualified for a role. “Usually guys are chomping at the bit, coming up to their manager saying, ‘Hey, I’m ready for a promotion,’ when they really aren’t,” says Alexander Lowry, a business professor at Gordon College. “Females are the opposite. The manager will say, ‘You’re ready for the next level,’” and many of them will say, ‘No, I’m not quite there yet.’”

To be sure, there are still scenarios when gunning for a promotion makes more sense. If you’ve made, say, three lateral moves in the past few years, hiring managers could wonder why you haven’t been promoted. Or if you’re really unhappy in your job and find the organization is no longer a good fit for you, it may be better to look externally than to go for a lateral (or vertical) move. And if money is a consideration, it’s better to jump up than sideways because people get paid best when they leave a company, career coaches say.

Whatever choice you make, the key to making your move work is how you explain and share your decision. Think of your LinkedIn profile, for instance, and how the moves will be spelled out in a coherent chain. “It’s all about the story you tell,” Lowry says.

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