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Lateral moves: 4 signs you're ready to go sideways

December 22, 2021 - 17 min read

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What's a lateral move?

4 upsides to a lateral move

3 downsides to a lateral move

Lateral move versus a promotion

The business benefits of a lateral move

Are you ready to go sideways?

If you’re thinking about making a career move, you’re not alone. 

As most already know, career paths are rarely linear. We’re human. We need to try out different things to figure out what we like and what we don’t like. Then, once we learn, we adjust accordingly to drive our career journeys. For example, I started my own career as a high school English teacher — and now I write blogs. 

Add in the way companies, markets, and entire industries are changing as a result of technology, new rules, or changing tastes. It's more surprising that anyone's career is still linear. 

It’s not surprising that career shifts are bound to happen throughout your career and lifetime. Some say you should explore and learn as much as possible to make more informed decisions about where you want to take your career.

But now, more than ever, the career landscape is rapidly changing. The Great Resignation (or more accurately, the Great Reshuffling) tells us employees are looking for new opportunities. A record number of employees are leaving their current positions. Some people have re-examined their priorities and realized what matters most is not striving for the top of the corporate ladder. Others are looking to try something new, learn different skills, or veer in a new direction altogether.

Regardless of where you are in your career, you might be considering a lateral move. Depending on your career and personal goals, a lateral move could be the right decision for you. It might be an opportunity to find growth or flexibility — or both — and the motivation and inspiration for the next stage. 

Let’s take a closer look at what defines a lateral move, the benefits of lateral moves, and why it might be the right time to take the leap.

What is a lateral move? 

If you’re evaluating your next career move, it’s important to understand your options. Let’s start by defining lateral moves. 

There are many reasons why lateral movement might be good for you (and your company). Everyone has different needs, skills, and capacity to pursue opportunities. Their career development will look different as a result. 

Lateral movement comes with its own set of benefits and challenges. While a lateral move won’t take you to the next rung of the corporate ladder (at least not yet), it could be an attractive, and smart, next step. For the right person and situation, a lateral move can be the start of a more fulfilling career. It might just lead to your dream job. 

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4 upsides to a lateral move 

While a lateral career move might not be the right choice for everyone, it does have some clear benefits. If you’re considering a change in your career, it’s important to understand your options — and what those options can do for you. 

1. Improved culture (or leadership) 

You might have recently joined an organization. Upon settling into the role, you might discover that your current company’s culture and/or leadership is not for you. When there’s a misalignment in values, you might consider a lateral career move in a similar role — but at a new company.

Many times, individuals might be in a role or position they really enjoy. It’s the culture, leadership, and values that might not be the right fit. If you find yourself in this situation, a lateral career move could be considered. Plus, the change of scenery can be just the re-energizing boost you need to propel your career forward. 

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2. Learn new skills

In today’s world of work, skills are the new currency. According to Gallup, 48% of American workers would switch to a new job if offered training opportunities. And 65% of workers believe employer-provided upskilling is very important in a potential new job. 

A lateral move can be helpful for people feeling stagnant, without room for growth or development, in their current positions.

During the ongoing pandemic, upskilling and learning new skills became a new priority for many in the global workforce. But learning new skills or a new skill set isn’t the only draw. Data shows that roughly two-in-three workers say upskilling has raised their standard of living and quality of life.  

3. Improved work-life harmony 

If you’re burned out, overworked, and ready for a significant change, a lateral move can offer flexibility or mental and emotional space. It could help you harmonize your work and your personal life. If you’re finding you’re sacrificing family time for your career, a lateral move could help reallocate your time in ways that are meaningful to you.

Studies show more than 60% of US employees feel like their work-life balance is out of whack. Amid the pandemic, caregiving responsibilities skyrocketed — and data show women were disproportionately impacted.

In search of equilibrium between work and personal life, many have found lateral career moves to be beneficial. And while some might see a lateral move as detrimental to their overall career journey, studies show otherwise. One study cites that 8 in 10 female senior business leaders have made a nontraditional change (like a lateral move). 

A lateral career move isn’t a death sentence in your career. You might be surprised to see what you can gain from a lateral move.

4. Expand your professional network 

Internal mobility has a proven business advantage. But what can it do for you as an individual?  A lateral move within your current company can only help you expand your professional network. You’ll interact with a new manager, different departments, and new teams. Dependent on your new role, you could also potentially interact with new customers or even future employers. An expanded professional network means you’re increasing your social capital.

Building your social capital and professional network has tons of benefits: 

Even if you make a lateral move at your current employer, your new role can lead to career development. It's always good to seek career advice from a trusted person, like a coach.  

3 downsides to a lateral move 

Of course, a lateral move isn’t right for everyone. Just like any decision in life, it varies on a case-by-case basis. When taking a look at some of the downsides, it’s important to keep these topics in mind. It might come with its own set of new challenges to consider.

1. Compensation 

Oftentimes, a lateral career move doesn’t come with a big pay raise. The best lateral career moves usually come with a modest pay raise — but it’s not a guarantee. 

You’ll have to weigh your pros and cons when considering a lateral move. Is this minor to no pay raise worth it for what I’ll gain? Will I be able to progress my career faster after I learn new skills in this lateral move? Am I willing to sacrifice compensation for other things?

Dependent on your answers, it might not be the best time to make a change in your career. 

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2. Stagnant career growth 

It can be scary to start over. And with some lateral moves, it might feel like you’re starting from square one. Every position and organization is different. It’s important to closely examine (and ask lots of questions!) to ensure you’re making the right call.

Consider the circumstances of the lateral move at hand. Will it stifle my career development? If promotions and climbing the corporate ladder are goals, will it take much longer to get to where I want to go? Do I see a clear path for growth?  

If you’re hoping to set yourself to reach a certain management or leadership role, a lateral move might halt your progress towards your goal. Evaluate your reasons for moving and discuss them with your current manager. If they can guarantee you a promotion in the near future, it may be worth it to stay.

3. Perceived lack of clarity 

Deviating from your original career path isn’t a bad decision. But perhaps you’ve deviated from your career path enough times that it might raise red flags for an employer. While most folks will have non-linear career paths on paper, be sure you can speak to your overall goals of switching careers. This is especially important if you’ve made multiple lateral moves over the years. 

Lateral move versus a promotion 

Don’t confuse a lateral move with a promotion. There are clear advantages to both. In some cases, a lateral move might be more beneficial to your career path than getting a promotion. In others, a promotion might be your next career goal. 

  • A promotion: A promotion is considered a career advancement. Promotions usually come with an increase in compensation, responsibilities, and sometimes even benefits. If you aspire to a leadership position in your organization, or you like your current role and want more responsibility, promotion is a good goal. 
  • A lateral move: Think of a lateral move as a sideways move for your career. You might not receive a change in pay, authority, or responsibilities. But you could gain new skills, new leadership and/or culture (if you’ve left your organization for a new one), or an improved work-life balance. 

3 benefits of a lateral move for your business 

There’s sometimes a stigma associated with lateral mobility and lateral career moves.  Yet data show lateral mobility has a strong positive business impact. More businesses are starting to understand and encourage lateral moves. Some are creating internal marketplaces and improving their internal mobility programs. 

1. Overall business performance 

According to research, encouraging lateral mobility has a strong correlation to market performance. In fact, high-performance organizations are 4.5X more likely to make talent mobility a priority for their workforce. For employers and managers, it’s actually good for your business to encourage lateral movement. 

2. Improved employee retention 

For employers and managers, it’s actually good for your business to encourage lateral movement. LinkedIn found that employees who change positions are more likely to stay at the company than those who stay stagnant in their roles.

Managers and leaders: help your employees explore new opportunities. Remove the stigma or shame associated with exploring new positions within your organization. As an organization, you’ll be better equipped for success by promoting lateral movement and job mobility. 

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3. A smarter workforce 

Similar to new skills the individual learns when making a lateral move, the business will also reap the benefits of its upskilled talent. Organizations benefit from a multi-talented workforce.  Employees are better equipped to solve tough problems, think creatively, and innovate. Promoting lateral movement and career mobility leads to a “work smarter” not “work harder” culture. Your workforce, and your organization, will benefit.

Are you ready to go sideways? 

Going sideways with a lateral move could be one of the best decisions you ever make in your career. It might also not be the right time for a lateral move. Hopefully, you’ve learned more about what’s right for you. 

Regardless of where you are in your career journey, working with a coach can help. Engaging with a third party can help you get perspective on your choices and be so beneficial for your overall development.

Remember, one size rarely fits all. You’re in the driver seat of your own career — and with the support of a trusty co-pilot for the lonely stretches — where you take, it is up to you.

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Published December 22, 2021

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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