In the past, professionals on the fast track to an illustrious career had one way to go: up. The ultimate and immediate goal was to secure that coveted promotion and new, fancy title and continue to climb the corporate ladder.
Today, though, we’re in the midst of an evolving work environment where agile and ambitious employees are often setting their own rules and going in directions that suit them, whatever their end ambition may be. And salary isn’t always the driver.
Enter the “lateral move” — a sideways jaunt to a similar level that allows professionals to learn additional and needed skills, try new experiences, eliminate monotony, gain a better work/life balance, or maybe leave a position or company that doesn’t fit them for one reason or another. Lateral moves can be made either in-house to an adjacent department, or to another establishment, even in a different industry. Many companies are also embracing the lateral move as a way of encouraging employee development.
“It’s a messier world and the tolerance is increasing toward career paths that look very different,” said Veronika Ambertson, a career coach and consultant in Skövde, Sweden. Companies are also looking for professionals who are creative, analytical, and critical thinkers, all with nimble skills, and there is more flexibility in today’s job market as a result, added Paul Schoonenberg, senior teaching fellow in professional development and employability at the University of Surrey in the UK. “The job market is changing quickly, and employees are needing to skill up all the time, within their existing organisation or another organisation,” he said.
There are other perks to moving sideways: A new post may provide you with training opportunities, expand your contacts, and make you a more well-rounded professional, which could spur advances in the future, Schoonenberg noted. But there are also risks. While you attempt to prove yourself, you could be locked into a lateral job for several years, slowing your career progression. Plus, future employers could view you as less of a go-getter if you don’t vie for higher status. “Moving laterally is a great idea, but be aware that there is a risk that people will wonder if you aren’t motivated to move up,” said Patrick O’Reilly, executive coach and president of Padraig Coaching & Consulting Inc., in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
So how does one assess and successfully make a lateral move? These three career experts offered the following tips:
Analyse yourself. If you have a sideways post in mind, look before you leap. Ask yourself what inspires you, and what parts of your current or past jobs you enjoyed. Look for the ways that a lateral move can support what you enjoy and improve your skillset. “Find out what you will be doing and what skills and daily activities are part of the job,” O’Reilly said. “Jump towards a new opportunity, don’t just jump to leave.”
Look ahead. Make sure the move will boost your professional profile, such as adding new skills, improving a current competency, or “exposing you to a wider or more influential network of people”, Ambertson said. “For a lateral move to make sense, you need to get something out of it that would later allow you to move upward.” Also, know your final career goal before considering a sideways move. If your ambition is to become a CFO and you need this lateral shift to get there, then transferring to a new post is logical, Schoonenberg added. Be strategic.
Don’t jump too soon. It’s dangerous to think the grass is always greener in a new department or company and then, in turn, make a rash decision to get out via a sideways shuffle, Schoonenberg said. Instead, look at self-development options, such as external training opportunities, or working with a mentor, before you switch jobs. “Trying to improve your current lot is an important step,” he noted. “People shouldn’t rush into lateral moves.”
Avoid boredom. Before you accept a parallel position, make sure “the new role is interesting enough to keep you engaged for two to three more years”, Ambertson noted. “With a lateral move, you need to look for aspects that differentiate the new job from your current one, enough to keep you learning and growing, even without any increased responsibilities.”
If possible, don’t accept a lower salary. You may be moving sideways because you feel stuck in a toxic or ill-fitting job, but that doesn’t mean you should go backward in pay. Try to garner the same or higher earnings, and if not, make sure the benefits, such as work-at-home options, training opportunities, or new challenges, outweigh even a slight drop in compensation. “A lateral move should not entail lower pay unless there is some tangible benefit to justify the cut,” Ambertson said.
Explain your sideways move. Be prepared to answer questions during current and future job interviews as to why you accepted a lateral position. “Make sure people understand why you are doing this, and spin it in the positive,” O’Reilly said. Outline how the new job will benefit not only you, but the organisation as well, Ambertson added.
Maintain the pace. Once you accept a lateral post, keep that career drive going. “Focus on strengths and performance, and think about the long term and what is your end game,” Schoonenberg said. “Whatever you do in terms of this lateral move, you will need to keep up the momentum.”
— Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.