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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