1. Career Advice
  2. Career Change
  3. How lateral moves can advance your career in unforeseen ways
How lateral moves can advance your career in unforeseen ways

How lateral moves can advance your career in unforeseen ways

Artwork by: Aleksandra Zabnina

  • What is a lateral career move?
  • Aligning your personal and professional goals
  • Reasons for a lateral move
  • Are lateral career moves good?
  • Expand your professional network
  • Increase your marketability
  • Gain global experience
  • Learn the business
  • Own your career
  • How to make a lateral career move
  • Navigating an internal lateral move
  • Making an external lateral move
  • When should you consider a lateral move?
  • Key takeaways

A consistently-upwards career growth trajectory is an outdated concept. This article explains how making lateral moves is a strategy that can actually advance your career.

In the past, when someone was said to be “upwardly mobile”, it was understood that their chances for success via career advancement were excellent. But career paths aren’t always vertical anymore, where they begin with an entry-level position, followed by consecutive upward promotions that include additional responsibilities and increases in pay grade.

To adapt to changing job markets and work climates, and protect against economic uncertainties, professionals need alternatives to climbing the proverbial corporate ladder. At a time when more and more employees are becoming vocal in demanding better work-life balance, flexibility, and transparency from their employers; when quiet quitting or resorting to resignation are on the rise, perhaps a better option for your next career step should be a lateral move.

In this article, we’ll explore how lateral moves can advance your career.

  • What is a lateral career move?

  • How can you align your personal and professional goals?

  • Why make a lateral move?

  • What does a lateral move mean for you and your career?

  • How do you make a lateral career move?

  • When should you consider a lateral move?

What is a lateral career move?

Simply put, a lateral career move is a horizontal (or, sideways) job change wherein your responsibility level and pay don’t change significantly. The change can be to a similar position, a complementary one, or to a different role entirely. Lateral moves can be made internally—or, within the company where you hold a current position, or externally—which would mean to a new company.

Until you’re unhappy or insecure in your job, you may not give a lot of thought to how the connection between your personal and professional goals impacts your career development. To progress in your career, you need a plan. Your plan may or may not change, but to be strategic about your next step—including whether a lateral career move might be beneficial for you—a helpful exercise would be to explore that connection by aligning your personal and professional goals.

Aligning your personal and professional goals

Why should personal goals matter when it comes to your professional success? Your personal goals are, presumably, what drives your life decisions. For example, say you’ve determined you need to be home with your pre-toddler to guide her earliest years. What does this mean for your career?

Or, maybe you’ve determined the engineering path you’re on isn’t satisfying and you want to move into machine learning, but you have a family you support as the sole source of income. How does this impact your plan and ability to pivot?

Without aligned personal and professional goals, you can see how internal conflict and confusion can result. To align your next move with your personal and career goals, create a plan for how to get there. The plan should then break down into steps, or SMART goals, making it easier to adjust your course whenever changes that could be overwhelming do come up.

Reasons for a lateral move

There are many reasons why you might choose to make a lateral move. Maybe the job or work environment isn’t what you were expecting; maybe you’ve learned all that you can in your current role; or maybe an organizational change is dissolving your department. Whatever your reasons for wanting to make a move, look at it as an opportunity to expand your professional network and learn something new.

Here are some common reasons why employees may choose to make a lateral career move:

  • Like the company and colleagues, but not the job

  • Better work-life balance

  • Develop new skills or specialize

  • No clear path for advancement

  • Bad manager

  • Mismatch with company culture

  • Toxic work environment

Is a lateral move the right next step for you personally? For such an important decision, you may want to do some introspection to clarify why exactly you are considering a lateral move. You can then examine these reasons next to your plan and existing goals.

Are lateral career moves good?

You’ve no doubt heard some negatives about lateral moves: pay cuts / delayed higher salary, loss of seniority, and how a new team means re-acclimating and starting over. However, in many circumstances, a lateral career move can be very good.

In this article, we’re going to look at the positive side of lateral moves and how they can help advance your career. 

To even consider a lateral move likely means you are able to look at challenges from many sides. Viewing lateral moves as a strategy for accomplishing career goals can present new possibilities and variety for the open-minded and risk takers, and enable exposure for those seeking to narrow down their career options.

Expand your professional network

One benefit of moving into a lateral role is the chance to widen network connections. Bigger projects can enable more access to leaders, and visibility can lead to promotions. Similarly, cheerfully accepting bad assignments no one else will take can turn out to be a growth move that demonstrates your ability to step up to challenges.

Increase your marketability

Expanding your skill set, naturally, increases your marketability, and positions you for future growth. A new role may expose you to different tools, processes, and opportunities to achieve.

Gain global experience

Sometimes, a lateral move can bring the unexpected benefit of learning about a completely different culture and its practices within the same business context.

Learn the business

Learning more about the greater business as a whole increases your chances for promotability when you can connect those learnings back to your role and process improvements.

Own your career

A lateral move is a chance to own your career. If working to solidify your career vision on your own terms, gaining practical experience, in complementary roles, can help round out your qualifications.

How to make a lateral career move

So, how do you make a lateral career move? Consider the following to help you plan your steps, whether you’re considering an internal or external move.

Navigating an internal lateral move

  1. When considering an internal lateral move, you will first want to investigate whether your company has policies around internally transferring roles. Common items include time in your current position, performance targets, prior disciplinary actions, and disclosure about your internal job search to your current manager. The best place to learn about such policies is to start with the human resources department.

  2. Before beginning your search for a new role, you will want to broach the topic with your manager. Share your intentions, and explain your reasoning if you can, being careful to preserve the relationship as you may work with the manager again sometime in the future.

  3. Once you’ve verified that you meet all the internal requirements, you can start your search for new opportunities. Many companies prefer to hire and promote internally. There should also be less competition for an internal role. Make inquiries about employment opportunities by networking with colleagues, and keep up-to-date on openings via the company career portal. Often, companies have a separate employment site for internal employees so be sure to check whether that is true for your organization.

  4. To determine how to best navigate the transition, including how to initiate the conversation with your manager, talk to your internal colleagues and your mentor, and leverage your professional network. You may be able to get career advice or, at least, input to help spark your thought process. As your conversations and research yield more considerations, include the details in your transition strategy.

Making an external lateral move

  1. With an external lateral move, you will be seeking the same position, but at a different company. Because you’re not looking for just any job in your new position, you’ll need to be patient. Survey the job market to see what may be available that matches your current skill set. Get additional training as needed.

  2. As you do an external job search, you will need to keep up your responsibilities in your current role.

  3. Connect with your professional network, and confidentially inquire about job openings.

  4. Create a confidential version of your resume and check/update your LinkedIn privacy settings around job search activities and visibility.

When should you consider a lateral move?

Here are a few scenarios to help guide the timing of your internal or external lateral move:

  • A new job with better pay/title with a different company becomes available

  • You have decided on a career change

  • A similar role to your current one is available in a new organization

  • A new role in a different department of your current organization is available

  • An opportunity for a similar role in a different country is available

  • A role with more visibility, a different team, chance for advancement, etc. becomes available

  • Your current department is expected to be downsized or obsolesced

  • You are seeking new challenges that may help you reach your full potential

  • You are stressed in your current job or need a change of scenery

Key takeaways

  1. Align your personal and professional goals.

  2. Create a plan with SMART goals to align your lateral move to your personal and career goals.

  3. Clarify your reasons for making a lateral career move.

  4. Determine whether you will be making an internal or external lateral move.

  5. Prepare to make your move and monitor job openings.

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