Saturday, February 6, 2010

Career Advice Part 3: Lateral Moves

A lot of career advice these days deals with how to get a job and how to get ahead (promoted). Makes sense, given the current economic conditions.

However, at some point in your career, you will most likely be faced with another kind of career decision – whether to make a lateral move into a role that’s unfamiliar to you.

Before I get into the ins and outs of lateral moves, I need to give you some context as to where my advice is coming from.

My jobs have always been all about talent management. I have to make sure my company has strong leadership capability and a of pipeline emerging leaders ready to move up and fill open positions. When it comes to career management, my primary loyalty is to my company. In other words, I’m not a career counselor, placement specialist, or academic advisor. To use a real estate metaphor - I basically work for the buyers of talent, not the sellers.

One of the tools we use to develop and prepare “high potentials” is cross-functional, lateral, “developmental” job changes. When it comes to developmental impact, nothing else comes even close. Not coaching, training program, books, mentors, or stretch assignments. Carefully orchestrated movement of talent will always give us the biggest bang for our buck.

It’s not always easy trying to convince senior executives that giving up their best talent – or taking someone who doesn’t have years of functional expertise – is a good thing. That is, good for the company in the long run – while not so good for them in the short.

It also sometimes takes a bit of “nudging” to get one of the “hipos” to take a lateral move. Same issue – it’s all about the long term developmental and career benefits. Take a step sideways in order to take a step up.

The reason I wanted to provide that background is that when it comes to this blog, my loyalty is to my readers – you. I know a lot of leaders and aspiring readers follow this blog, and trust my advice. This post’s advice is all about looking out for your best interests, not your companies.

So with that background, here’s what I would consider to be the potential rewards and risks (the stuff your company doesn’t want you to know) of lateral moves, along with summary advice at the end.

Rewards of a lateral, cross-functional job change:

1. You’ll Learn.
In fact, you’ll learn A LOT. And that’s good, as I pointed out in a recent post – good career management is all about learning.

2. You’ll not only learn new functional skills, but you’ll have an opportunity to learn new leadership skills as well. These kinds of job changes can alter your worldview.

3. A lateral move really can be the best path to a promotion (if that’s what you want). For example, in order to be a successful general manager, it’s important to have experience in as many aspects of business as possible. A “stovepipe” career path is too narrow and limited to prepare someone to run a complex business.

4. You’ll have more career options and be more marketable.

5. You’ll expand your network, maybe have more visibility, and possibly develop a broader base of support.

6. There are more opportunities to move sideways than there are to move up. The old climb the ladder “T” career path is a thing of the past. Nowadays, a good career path consists of a series of zig-zag moves – more of a “Z” path.

7. Its an opportunity to prove that you have potential. The research says the biggest predictor of potential is “learning agility”. Success in an new role is a way to measure that ability.

Sounds like a sure thing, right? Well, as we’ve learned about investments and horse racing, there’s no such thing. The higher the reward, the higher the risk.

Risks of a lateral, cross-functional job change:

1. The failure rate is high.
While I don’t have quantifiable research, my experience tells me it’s probably about 50%. From a company perspective, that may be an acceptable attrition rate, because the rewards are so high. However, it’s sure not OK if you’re on the wrong side of the 50%.

2. No matter what they tell you, deep functional expertise is important.
We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom that says “you don’t have to be a functional expert to be a great leader”. Well, unfortunately, in most cases, you do. It’s awful darn hard to be in a meeting and be perceived as “strategic” if you don’t have a clue about the details. If you’re going to succeed, you’d better be a real fast learner or already bring some functional expertise to the table. A wise mentor once told me: “Don’t ever take a job in which you’re not at least 40% qualified”.

3. Organizations are not very forgiving.
After about 6 months, everybody soon forgets that this was supposed to be a “developmental assignment” for you and starts getting impatient with a lack of results. No matter what you were told, you’ll be expected to perform and get results sooner than later.

4. You could lose your confidence.
When you’re used to being the expert, not knowing what you’re doing can wreck havoc on your confidence. If not careful, it can end turn into a downward spiral that causes you and others to question your judgment, competence, and even your potential.

5. Without a “lifeline”, you could lose your job.
A “lifeline” is an informal or formal agreement that if things don’t work out, you can retune to your old position. Some may tell you to forgo the lifeline – because it gives you an easy out. While that may be true to some extent, my advice is to at least not burn that bridge behind you.

6. You could be forgotten.
I’ve seen this happen when someone takes a development move to another location. It’s “out of sight, out of mind”. You can lose your visibility. It’s especially dangerous if your sponsor leaves the company, and leaves you stranded on the moon.

Given all of these potential risks, if the right opportunity came up, should you take it? All things considered, I would. Actually, I did, and survived. I experienced every one of these advantages and disadvantages (except losing my job). While it was one of the most painful periods of my career, I sure did grow from the experience, and in the long run, the benefits were well worth it. I would have never gotten my next positions if I didn’t have that valuable experience.

However, they are not for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with staying in your field and developing deep expertise, as long as you continue to be satisfied and marketable. Be aware of the potential benefits and risks, and make the decision that’s right for you. Don’t let anyone (like me) talk you into doing something that you don’t want to do or is not in your best interests.

For additional tips, here’s a post I wrote called “A Guide to Great Development Moves”. I wrote it as a guide for HR managers to assist executives, but most of the advice is applicable to all.

How about you? What’s your experience been with cross-functional lateral moves?

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Unknown said...

From a company’s perspective it seems like lateral movements are good in creating potential future leaders. But from an employee’s perspective it seems like there are a great deal of things that could happen that can make it better to not have tried the movement in the first place. I think it would be much better to have a strong lifeline in the business, perhaps that someone would have many years experience with no intentions of going anywhere for a long time. I think networking is probably essential too. Without knowing the right people to turn to during certain situations, one can find himself hung out to dry. To look out for myself I need to learn as much as I can. I wonder if you can give some more information on how not to fail at lateral movement.

Joe Bradshaw said...

Great points Dan.

At many corporate workplaces the path to the top or to at least the path to the desired position is often blocked by other people who have been there longer. These people are not shining examples of leadership and achievement although they do their jobs well. So a lateral move can be the only way to keep your career from floundering. It has been mentioned to me by several colleagues that the only way to prove your value to the company is to go out and prove you are worth more to another company or another department. This might mean re-learning basic skills and improving communication skills just to get by, but to succeed the modern man must hustle.


Sean Chapple said...

Some sound advice. Venturing into new territory is always a daunting prsopect, and the secret is get yourself prepared and understand what your moving into - the key theme in your article. Great insights.

Unknown said...

Great post Dan! Your advice really hit me right on the head. I have seen this happening at work a whole lot, and it is unfortunate seeing people who have been there longer than I have getting stuck simply because they won't get promoted and plus because they dislike being moved to a different workareas. So, I think the path to success is a choice, and nowadays with this hard economy people think there is not options to move up whereas there is what you call lateral moves to keep advancing and getting ahead from the others.
Thank you very much Dan for sharing your valuable thoughts with us!!

Dan McCarthy said...

Nathaniel -
I included a link at the end of the post with advice.

Joe, Sean, Javier -
Thanks. I hope it helps all of you.

Jessica said...

Your article really made me see that their are always risks with success. When a company proposes a lateral move they make it seem like everything will be perfect and you will strive in your new enviroment and being caught in the moment it is easy to forget there are two sides to every decision. My question would be how many lateral moves would you think would be a good career move before you start to think a company is just using you for their benefit and never really going to put you on the path of climbing the ladder?

Unknown said...

I found your post very interesting. I believe "lateral moves" outside of your current company can be quite beneficial as well. I am in the engineering field and have recently made a "lateral move" to a firm which focuses on totally different industries from my last firm. While I was not experienced in these industries, making the move has proven beneficial due to the greater career potential for me at this firm than the last. I do agree with you that functional experience is extremely important, and in my opinion one of the most difficult things to master when making a large lateral move.


Debashish Brahma said...

Dear Dan,
This post is excellent. You have talked about failures and learn from failures.
In our life we have to fail to excel.
The failures and the career growth path are directly proportional, if the experience of failure can be used later to avoid failures.

You fail, you learn better from your experience and knowledge, the mistakes becomes your rich experience which enhances your career.
This is an excellent Video must watch. Lot of lessons to be learnt.

With Warm Regards,

Dan McCarthy said...

Jessica -
Actually, I did not mean to imply that a lateral move always benefits the company. There is a company cost and risk, so it's not something they are going to encourage without a good reason. There is more bebefit to the company in your staying where you are.
As to your question o how many lateral moves is enough until a promotion, I can't really answer that. There's too many "it depends". In a very flat organization, it could be quite a few. In others, quite a few could mean you've hit your ceiling.

Dan McCarthy said...

Carl -
Makes sense, especially in engineering.

Deb -
Thanks for the video, it's good!

Tim said...

Dan -
Love the post, thanks! I'm excited to share it with colleagues.

If I might take issue with one statement, however - you said: "One of the tools we use to develop and prepare “high potentials” is cross-functional, lateral, “developmental” job changes. When it comes to developmental impact, nothing else comes even close. Not coaching, training program, books, mentors, or stretch assignments. Carefully orchestrated movement of talent will always give us the biggest bang for our buck.

Although I agree with the point, I wonder if, instead of comparing the many developmental methods against one another, we might look at how we could combine them for even more impact. In my experience, coaching, training, books, mentors, etc. can be instrumental in helping a lateral assignment to be successful. You reference this in the linked article...just hoping it's a point that isn't lost.


Dan McCarthy said...

Tim -
Agree! Thanks for that clarification. The magic is in the mix.