It used to be the main trajectory employees worked towards was the ladder hierarchy—straight up. Each step was strategic in earning a higher salary, position, perks and/or title. Moving to the side—the lateral move—was often looked at as a career stall or a dead end.
However, in the current employment environment, organizations are continually becoming more flat in structure and there may be increasingly less top positions available. This means that lateral career moves are now looked upon in a more positive light-if done correctly.
You may think, why would I want to move to another position that does not give me a title change, a salary increase, or other perks? Seems strange in the traditional sense of a career path, but it makes a lot of sense in terms of skill, relationship, and knowledge development.
One of the biggest improvements to skills when moving laterally is in communication. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the most important qualities for high job performance are: listening, speaking, creative thinking, decision making, reasoning, and honesty. All of these skills can be refined with communication training (U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2003).
For communication workers, building such skills are important for any job change or promotion, and a lateral move could mean an opportunity to build in all of these areas. In a review of 25 surveys of employers for what they are looking for in employees, strong communication skills, from interpersonal, listening, written, verbal, presentation and cultural communication, are listed in every single one and usually as the top skill (U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2003).
This means that employees could find the opportunity to improve these much needed communication skills by moving laterally. As author Joanne Cleaver puts it in "The Career Lattice," (2012), a book about making smart lateral moves: "Over is the new up" (McGregor, 2011, para 4). Today's employees may find themselves asked to specialize less and have more of a general knowledge base, which means understanding a variety of stages or elements of the organization. This understanding could be gained through deliberate lateral career moves.
There are benefits for both the employee and company when moving laterally.
Benefits for the company:
- If there is no higher position available but the employee is valuable, the organization can keep an employee until a higher position is vacant.
- Community and work environment can be improved with a move of a good leader.
- Peer relationships are the majority of the communication that happens in an organization, so there can be an improved focus on the relationships and communication of peer relationships.
- Adding a new voice, listener, and leader could build a more positive channel and environment, thereby improving horizontal communication when there is an interdepartmental issue or other negative channels of communication.
- Employees are able to move to a more motivating job without the organization having to give fake title changes or salary improvements.
Benefits for the employee:
- For an existing employee, a sideway move can energize and build skills, relationships, and knowledge base.
- For someone looking for more responsibility, or someone who seeks to prove abilities in a new position, industry, or department, a lateral move can be a perfect place to start. The job may have the same title and salary, but offers more leadership responsibility or areas to be collaborative, creative, and innovative that the previous position did not offer.
- Those who are busy with family or outside obligations can move to more interesting work, but not more responsibility.
- Employees can learn from a good leader or learn a new area of the company.
- If there is an existing personality issue with someone that cannot be resolved, moving someone can lead to a fresh perspective or atmosphere.
Another element of lateral moves is building diverse relationships. In the animal world, lateral communication results in collective intelligence and this ideal can be recognized in a business environment with peer-to-peer and interdepartmental communication and understanding. A worker who has the ability and relationships to communicate with a variety of coworkers is a valuable asset and can build collective intelligence.
This also means that employees who opt for a lateral move need to be ready for the new culture of the move and not expect the same processes, communication standards, or other elements. These shifts can be challenging at first, but the knowledge gained by working with diverse groups is worthwhile.
For communication workers and students, a lateral move could make clear sense. For instance, the personnel recruiter could become the trainer, admissions counselor, sales representative, or the public information officer. The advertising or marketing specialist could become the media planner, publicity manager, media sales representative, campaign manager, or activities director. The copywriter can become the public researcher, media analyst, research specialist, medical grants writer, corporate public affairs manager, or script writer. The focus should not be on the title of the position, but more on the skills and knowledge needed.
Building a career is a long and arduous process and in today's work environment it can take many twists and turns without the traditional worry of constantly "moving up." Focusing on the experience, skill, knowledge, and relationship development is one measure of a valuable employee in today's workforce. So, the next time there does not appear to be a good career option up on the ladder of hierarchy, look over instead.
Joanna Bauer is a faculty member at Kaplan University. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Kaplan University.
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ELA Research Findings for UCSD Extension (2010). Career and Life Skills. Retrieved from http://edwardabeyta.com/?page_id=206
McGregor, J. (2011, Oct 17). How to make a smart lateral career move. Fortune. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2011/10/13/how-to-make-a-smart-lateral-career-move/
U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (2003). Occupational outlook handbook, 2002–03 edition, Job outlook 2003.