When a lateral career move makes sense

When you think of career success you might think mainly of climbing up the corporate ladder, but don’t rule out moving laterally.

It’s becoming more common these days, particularly in industries hit hard by the economic downturn, to move or pivot sideways. What we’re seeing is that a lateral move isn’t just about survival.

Making a lateral career move can be a very smart decision that will help you achieve more success in the long run or enhance your health and well-being in the present.

Change can be good even if you’re moving over instead of upwards.

Consider the move

In fact, there are certain times that a lateral move can be very advantageous. Let’s consider a few of the most common reasons you may want to look for opportunities to make a lateral move:

You need out of a toxic work environment. It’s exhausting to face working with a peer or a boss who makes your workday miserable, or the stress of a team embroiled in daily drama. Finding another employer who needs your skills and experience or a similar role within your organization in another department could be your ticket out of a negative situation.

Your current job could be downsized. Sometimes we see grim signs that the company may be in trouble and hear rumours of impending layoffs. If you’re worried that you may not have a job in a few months, it may be time to actively search for another opportunity somewhere else that is similar to your role and offers more job security.   

You don’t feel quite ready to climb up the ladder. If you have your eyes set on a career goal, but you know you need to demonstrate some more diverse skills to move up, a lateral move is a great stepping stone. It can give you experience managing direct reports or projects, help you network more, build deeper knowledge in your field, and give you new responsibilities. Finding a new role that gives you a chance to learn more – or a new boss who will be a great mentor – can be very beneficial to your future success. And, it can give you more visibility within the company.

Family circumstances require action. Perhaps your spouse has been transferred, your child needs medical treatment in a different city, you’re taking care of aging parents, or you’re finishing a degree. There are definitely times when our personal lives are so demanding that a lateral move is more sensible than a promotion. A lateral move that offers some challenge (without additional responsibility!) will give you time to grow in your career at your own pace.

You like your job, but want a bit of a change. Some of us reach a point where we’re happy doing what we’re doing and don’t want to move up the corporate ladder. And that’s okay! In fact, we often work with folks who wish they hadn’t taken that last promotion but rather stayed doing what they loved. In those cases, you may still want to take what you know to a new role for some variety. A new team, project, or industry could be invigorating without upsetting your work-life balance.

You want to work on your own terms. Some of us reach a point where we have different priorities. If you’re sick of a long commute or long for a work culture that allows flex time or provides an on-site fitness centre, a lateral move can be life-changing (and readily achievable!). There are many employers who offer benefits that you value, and that you can secure with a lateral move.

Conquer imposter syndrome

Have you ever secretly wondered when everyone is going to realize you don’t actually know what you’re doing? If you’ve ever doubted your abilities despite earning your role and building success as you move along in your career, you may be struggling with what we call imposter syndrome.

If this is you, you’re not alone. There are many extremely bright and capable people who work very hard, but cannot shake the feeling that they’re fooling everyone else that they’re actually competent. This distorted thinking takes over, undermining their confidence and how they perceive their skills and abilities.

One great way to drown out that negative inner monologue is to build comfort and confidence in your career with a lateral move. For someone struggling with imposter syndrome, an upward move is only going to increase the stress and anxiety that this façade will come crashing down.

Instead, find a lateral opportunity that you can embrace and give yourself time to build experience in a role that you enjoy. With more time and demonstrated success, you should be able to drown out that negative inner voice and eventually move up with confidence.

Build skills and broad-based experience

In today’s global economy, narrow and deep experience may not be as beneficial to your career as more broad-based experience.

At one time, we might have seen any move other than upward as stagnant. Not anymore! The right lateral move is truly a development opportunity – so much so that Deloitte even refers to a “career lattice” instead of a career ladder.

As companies are leaner, employees who bring diverse skill sets and a wealth of experience are desirable. How can you demonstrate agility and ability? By succeeding in a lateral role.

Now, it means you’ve still got to focus on your end game. If, for example, you move from one department to another, you’re learning some fundamentals all over again. You’re likely even starting over with contacts and networking with new people. However, as you build on your previous experience and understand a completely new facet of the company or industry, you’re becoming more valuable and marketable.

A smart lateral move won’t stall your career; it can actually improve your career trajectory in time when you seek mentorship, learn all you can, and expand your network while demonstrating a breadth of ability. Use a lateral move to give yourself solid, broad-based experience to leverage into a more senior role.

When timing is a factor

It can be daunting to contemplate making any career move, and sometimes we have to make a move quickly.

If your spouse has been transferred and you’re on the hunt for work in a new city, you may feel the pressure to take the first job offer to make sure you’ve got a paycheque. For anyone who has significant seniority, a lateral move has to be chosen carefully because realistically we don’t have as many moves left as someone very junior.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you weigh your options:

Research your potential new employer. You’ll want to make sure that the company is financially sound and what future opportunities for growth it can offer. Is this job a replacement hire or a newly created role? Do your homework so you’re not blindsided after a move.

Prepare yourself for a culture change. A new department, company, or industry can have very real corporate cultural differences. Having a sense of what’s expected, how they work together, and even how long your new colleagues have been there (thank you, LinkedIn!) can help you ease in.

Ask the important questions. Every career move gives you an opportunity to negotiate, even if it’s for a job with the same title. So even with a lateral move, you can seek advantages like more leadership responsibility, better benefits, and opportunities to get involved in projects or initiatives. Find out about vacation days, personal days, and perks like tuition reimbursement or training incentives.

Don’t assume it will be easy.  Occasionally when folks take a lateral move they assume “I’ve got this” and go into the new role with overconfidence based on their experience at that level. In fact, each role has its own opportunities and challenges. Moving laterally will often be easier than moving up, but the reason it’s so valuable is that you’re still learning all new things. Don’t forget there will still be a learning curve.

Make the most of a lateral move. Do a little research if you’re moving from one industry to another or, for example, from a tech role into a marketing or sales role. Any time you move, it’s possible that the market value of a new role is slightly higher (or, for women, that your former employer didn’t offer equal pay for equal work!). Perhaps you didn’t negotiate your salary for your last position and weren’t paid top scale. It’s worth ensuring you are paid what you’re worth.

Essentially, when you take steps to choose your next career move carefully, a lateral move can be a very good decision for so many reasons. And if you’re hoping to move up the career ladder, it may even get you higher faster in the long run.


This week’s Coach’s Questions are:

How are you feeling in your current role and how is your career progress feeling? In your current role, what of the above blog post resonates and might help you in your career goals? What might stop you from seeking a lateral move?

Is it time to challenge your career comfort zone?

Change can be exciting, but it can also be uncomfortable. Anyone who’s been in an office during a merger or a reorganization knows this first-hand!

Let’s face it: When there is routine, there is usually comfort and a feeling of safety. We know what to expect, and when we can predict how our days will unfold there is typically less stress. There is a rhythm to the work week as long as we hold steady.

Some of us adapt to change more easily than others – and some changes are easier to accept than others but many of us rarely seek those changes.

When was the last time you sought to push yourself outside your comfort zone at work?

It’s human nature to protect ourselves from harm, and taking risks requires courage. Trying something new can be terrifying, but there isn’t usually much gain without risk.

Why it’s important to get out of your career comfort zone

Staying in your comfort zone can be like treading water: It feels very safe and it’s not too demanding, but you’re not moving forward.

In times we do push ourselves to leave that comfort zone, some interesting things can happen. For instance:

Better performance – A bit of alarm can actually boost our performance. At the turn of the last century, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson studied the effect of anxiety (versus a state of comfort) had on performance. They noticed slightly higher stress levels – what they called “optimal anxiety” – would improve productivity. Now, I get it – finding that “Goldilocks” sweet-spot is tough. Too much angst is counter-productive and too little only maintains the status quo.

Innovation – Staying in the comfort zone is sticking to a routine – what’s been tested and tried. When you push yourself into changes, the resulting shot of adrenaline can propel you to find new ideas or solutions. You’re more likely to exceed the status quo when you brave feeling uncomfortable to be innovative.

Increased drive – When you push yourself outside your comfort zone you’re going to be acutely aware of meeting a new deadline or achieving a new goal (instead of coasting along doing the same old thing). Finding your way through uncertainty takes focus and drive.

Resilience – We learn from our experiences, so each time you get outside your comfort zone makes the next time easier. Facing that state of “optimal anxiety” takes practice and we grow in confidence with each opportunity. In working with executives and senior leaders all over North America, I’ve come to think that resiliency is one of the top competencies required.

Self-improvement – What we find scary or alarming shifts because our comfort zone expands with each experience. Each challenge offers us a chance to grow our skills and build on our experiences, expanding our potential and maybe even helping us achieve goals beyond our wildest dreams.

When to push yourself outside your career comfort zone

It can be tricky to figure out when you’ve hit your stride at work or whether you’re stagnating on the job. There are a few things that may tip you off that it’s time to get outside your comfort zone.

Here’s what to watch for:

Boredom – Work that feels humdrum and predictable is probably not your best work.

Fear – Sometimes we limit our actions in an attempt to avoid making mistakes.

Procrastination – Avoiding necessary work is often the result of uncertainty, ennui, or feeling scared.

Even when we experience these negative feelings, the idea of trying something new can be daunting and frightening. Staying with the familiar (even if we’re not happy!) can be very comfortable. It’s hard to break old habits.

If you really want to grow and develop in your career, or if you’d just like to feel more excited by your work, it’s time to push yourself outside your comfort zone. We can find the courage to move through fear to achieve something we desire (like new opportunities! Sometimes being uncomfortable puts us on the path to success.

When it’s a good time to stay comfortable

You don’t have to always push yourself outside of that comfort zone. The opposite can be true.

All of us do best when we have time to recharge, and we’re not going to do that when we’re facing anxiety on a regular basis. It’s human nature to find a comfortable state where our anxiety and stress are minimal.

Remember that constant or excessive anxiety is counter-productive; it will drag you down and impede performance.  Think back over the last year and ask yourself if the feelings of stress and alarm have been inordinately high, or if you’ve only been feeling pushed, tested, and occasionally anxious about the unknown.  If anxiety has been continual, now might be a good time to continue building your comfort zone.

We also need time to reflect on what we experience so that we can grow in knowledge and confidence. Linger in the comfort zone as you process experiences, so you’ll figure out your strengths and weaknesses before diving into the next round of growth and change.

How to navigate outside of your comfort zone

Staying in our comfort zone is a choice, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. We stay in our comfort zone when we don’t change anything.

If you want to push yourself outside your comfort zone:

Size doesn’t matter – Changes can be small, and often little changes are easier for us to make.  Every little change can give you a new perspective. It could be eating out instead of bringing your lunch, taking a different route to work, starting a new exercise program, or taking a class to learn a new skill.

Give yourself a new perspective – Seeing the world through a new lens can be very informative. Talking with others, reading, and travel can all expand your horizons.

Dream – When you allow yourself to dream of possibilities, your potential is limitless. Your career is your responsibility and it really helps to have a sense of purpose. Not sure where to start? Try creating a personal vision statement for your career.

Take the time you need – Sometimes you need to go with your gut and make a quick decision, while other times you need to weigh options and clarify things.

Problem-solve – List all the problems and challenges you face and figure out what the barriers are. Listing them can make them feel much more manageable.

Journal – Take time each day (whether it be at the end of the workday, first thing in the morning, or in bed at night) to think and write about what felt challenging in your day and what felt routine.  Write, too, about how you responded to things and to people – did it feel easy or habitual and were you brimming with confidence in most things you do?  Once a week read back over your entries and see what your gut tells you.

Consider a career move – If you’re comfortable where you are, it could be time for a new job that will be challenging and motivating. Choosing your next career move means figuring out where to run to (not to run away from something!).

Coach’s Questions:

What’s your gut telling you? Is it time to push out of your comfort zone or time to stay comfortable?