Conventional wisdom sometimes suggests that a lateral move—or a career move anywhere but “up”—is at best a waste of time, and at worst a step backward. However, the truth is that there are many instances where a lateral move can be a significantly positive one.
In an article from earlier this year, Time magazine defines a lateral move as “a move within the company that doesn’t result in a title change.” That is a very narrow definition, and it is perhaps understood more broadly that a lateral move is generally a move where new responsibilities in scale and scope are not materially different than existing responsibilities.
So…when is it a good time to make a lateral career move?
Proving success in a new global region or market
US News & World Report suggests asking yourself: “Where do you want to be in your next role and the one after that? How are you going to get there?” Quite often it takes rounding out by moving into a geographic role where the responsibilities may be similar, but the challenge is very different.
For example, one of our long time clients has had an outstanding career as a president of multibillion dollar revenue business units across Europe and Asia, but had never directly managed a business in the U.S.
Last year he accepted the assignment to serve as president for his company’s business in the U.S.—moving to a smaller (but still multibillion dollar revenue) P&L than he was currently serving in, but a move that made complete sense in terms of offering a whole host of new geographic, market and strategic challenges.
He is now in line as successor to the corporation’s Global Chief Executive Officer as a result of his success in that move, with his new U.S. expertise rounding out his geographic record of achievement.
Moving over to move up
Beyond selecting a role that offers the same set of responsibilities but in a different environment, the modern-day corporate organization often necessitates rotating into a similarly “leveled” role but in a different (though related) functional capacity.
Cathy Benko, Vice Chair and Managing Principal at Deloitte, authored The Corporate Lattice describing the shift from the traditional “corporate ladder” perspective of career advancement to the modern-day “corporate lattice” approach.
She cites the statistic that organizations have become 25 percent flatter in the past 20 years, "fewer levels of hierarchy...while information flows and management spans are increasing."
Translated: There are fewer options on the organizational chart to move straight up the management chain.
When there isn’t a vacancy in the next rung up, it can make sense to rotate functionally, horizontally, across the organization until that opportunity appears.
For example, another Chief Executive Officer client took the path to that role by moving (over a series of years with the same company) from a Vice President of Sales role, to a Vice President of Marketing role, to a Vice President of Corporate Development role, and finally up a notch to the Chief Executive Officer role.
Sometimes it makes sense to make a lateral career move to another company—a new industry, a high-potential company with significant future growth prospects or other reasons.
Many people made lateral moves to Facebook in anticipation of a big pay day when the company went public. Similarly, many smaller companies with more narrowly defined roles pay higher salaries. When money is the most important thing—think sending kids to college—then the scope of the role is less important.
When considering a lateral move, Fortune advises an essential reminder, above all else: “Do your homework—about the company’s financial prospects…the true responsibilities of the job, and what the future opportunities really are…especially true the more senior you are.”
Making a lateral move into a new company is a much riskier proposition, but in the right circumstances can be a fortuitous one—if your decision is a sound one.
As with any business decision, if the motivations, information and situation are right, then a lateral move can be the exactly correct next step, and one that many accomplished executives have used in highly successful and fulfilling careers.