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Lateral Career Moves: Can Moving Sideways Help You Move Up?

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In the world of work, where we are inundated with advice on winning promotions and negotiating raises, vertical movement seems like the only goal worth striving toward.

But what happens when, instead of climbing the corporate ladder, you move sideways across it—opting for a job at the same level and even pay grade as the one you had before? Does it mean you’re wasting time? Stagnating?

To find out, I spoke with professionals who have either made lateral career moves themselves or helped others achieve them. The good news? It’s not as gloomy as some make it sound. In fact, the truth about lateral moves is hopeful and exciting.

So if a lateral career move is on your mind, read on to find out why it’s worth considering.

What Is A Lateral Career Move?

You make a lateral career move when you leave your job for one that’s of similar rank and similar pay. This can be within your current company or to a new one entirely.

What Is An Example Of A Lateral Move?

An example of a lateral move would be a senior accountant for a small CPA firm taking a job as an accountant for a major nonprofit organization. His pay and role are similar, but he’s changed companies and sectors, so this would be an external lateral move.

A vertical move would be if he got promoted to partner at his CPA firm, and perhaps this is what society tells him is the laudable goal, but he sees his lateral move as a worthy endeavor because working for a nonprofit lends him a deep sense of purpose. He also prefers having one client with whom he can form a deeper connection, rather than being at a CPA firm, where his efforts would be spread across multiple clients.

Why Should You Make A Lateral Career Move? 5 Compelling Reasons

1. You Want To Explore A New Area Of Your Current Company

Perhaps you enjoy working at your organization, but you don’t feel like you’re in the right role, or you feel like you’re stagnating in your current department. In that case, a lateral move might be right for you. Rather than quitting and starting over at a new company, you can switch departments, thereby staying at a company you love and landing a job that’s a better fit.

As director of operations, Kyle MacDonald has seen this happen many times with his own employees at GPS fleet tracking company Force by Mojio.

“They have all been success stories,” he says, “and each person decided to make the move because they wanted to branch into a new area of interest in the company. Each time, the employee had been with us for a while and had learned a lot about the position they wanted to transition to, so it was an easy decision to okay the move.”

2. You Love Your Job But Need To Leave A Toxic Environment

Sometimes, people make lateral moves to move away from a toxic coworker, boss, or company culture. Maybe you love your job and want to continue working in that capacity, but the organization you’re with isn’t good for your mental health. Consider a lateral move.

As a professional resume writer and former recruiter, Matthew Warzel, president of MJW Careers, LLC, has helped thousands of clients seeking a lateral transition, including one who needed to escape a toxic work environment. This particular client was able to leverage his contacts to transition to another service management role—but this time, with his company's competitor. He ended up doing the same work on the same type of product for the same amount of pay, with the added bonus of a shorter commute. And the biggest benefit of all? He was finally in a work situation where he could thrive.

3. You Want To Gain Experience In A New Industry

If you feel like you’re stagnating in your current position because you’ve learned as much as you can within that industry, a lateral move to a new company in a different field might be the jumpstart you need. You can take your experience and skills and still grow because you’ll have to apply them to an entirely new area. 

After nearly 10 years in a hospital setting as a clinical manager, audiologist Ruth Reisman made a lateral leap to clinical account manager for a hearing implant manufacturer, and she says she's thrilled with the decision. 

Why? She felt there was limited personal and professional growth if she remained in the hospital. Plus, she wanted to learn more about the business operations side of the industry, which her new job allowed her to do. 

"Life is about taking chances,” Reisman says. “It's not always about getting a higher title or more money but exploring opportunities that will expand your horizons and develop a greater sense of self, with the hope that the move will result in new paths that you may have never crossed without taking a leap of faith."

4. You Want To Grow Your Network

Moving laterally, even within your current organization, guarantees that you’ll meet new people and deepen professional relationships.  

Lisa Schott, principal consultant with The Schott HR Group, made her own lateral move from HR Director for a small healthcare company to HR Director for a large healthcare organization.  She credits the move with getting her in front of more leaders and helping her gain business mentors. 

"The lateral move positioned me for the future by paving the way to an eventual promotion,” Schott says.

By moving sideways, you never know who you’re going to meet and what new opportunities that will lead to.

5. You Want Better Benefits

Switching to a job of similar rank and pay as your current one isn’t a loss if the new company has benefits that you value more. For example, if your current role is on-site and you want to work from home, you might be able to find that role at a fully remote company that will allow you to do so. Don’t look only at hierarchy and salary when it comes to a lateral move; remember that some company benefits are invaluable.

Switching to a job of similar rank and pay as your current one isn’t a loss if the new company has benefits that you value more. For example, if your current role is on-site and you want to work from home, you might be able to find that role at a fully remote company that will allow you to do so. Don’t look only at hierarchy and salary when it comes to a lateral move; remember that some company benefits are invaluable.

But Won’t A Lateral Move Look Bad On My Resume?

This is a huge concern for many workers seeking a lateral move, so I decided to ask Warzel about it because he spent more than eight years as a technical recruiter.

“When I was a recruiter, the ‘purple unicorn’ or perfect candidate was typically the person doing the same work as our opening, at a competitor, and within the same pay grade,” he says. “This makes it easier for hiring and training. Plus, some hiring managers love poaching talent from the competition.”

But was there ever a time he noticed lateral movement on someone’s resume and saw it in a bad light?

“I have,” he says, “but only for the case of either a bad apple, meaning they were known in the industry as someone who job hops, or an actual job hopper. If you see a trend of someone staying at a place for a year, maybe two, maybe less, and does this continuously for a lengthy period of time, that's a huge red flag.”

So, according to Warzel, what looks bad is making too many lateral moves (and not staying long) as a way of avoiding growth.

The Corporate Ladder Doesn’t Always Need To Be Climbed

While they’ve gotten a bad rap, lateral career moves have so much to offer you: the challenge of applying your skills to a different part of your organization or a new industry, a chance to work at a company more aligned with your values, a broader network, better benefits. They can even pave the way to an eventual promotion, as we saw with Lisa Schott.

So don’t be so quick to write off lateral career moves. Sometimes, moving sideways could actually mean you’re moving up on your own terms.

Good or bad, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello)!

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