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Five Myths About Lateral Career Moves You Thought Were True

Jeevan Sivasubramaniam Posted by Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, Managing Director, Editorial, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Five Myths About Lateral Career Moves You Thought Were True

In their latest book, Up Is Not the Only Way, authors Bev Kaye, Lindy Williams, and Lynn Cowart address the importance of rethinking career mobility as not just a straight trajectory upwards, but one that can also involve a considerable number of lateral moves. Here's their report on the myths surrounding this phenomenon:

But why do lateral career moves get such a bad rap? As mobility detectives, determined to find the truth about career moves,  we set out to gather more information about lateral myths, and we found plenty. We picked our favorite five and share them here accompanied by our debunking arguments. We’re not trying to convince you, or turn you around. We simply want to pique your curiosity about what a lateral move might actually do to grow, not hamper, your career. 

Myth 1: A Lateral Move Does Nothing for Your Career. Wrong!  Hiring managers look for people who bring the widest range of personal knowledge and experience about an operation. Contrary to that stale myth we described earlier, the lateral mover’s career is not dead. In fact, when it comes time for promotions, the person who knows the most about different aspects of the business has an edge over the competition and might just be the one who wins the job.  That expansive view of the organization is just what’s needed as one rises to higher, more senior levels of the company.  Lateral moves contribute to building the ‘bird’s eye’ views  needed to consider multiple issues when making decisions and setting strategy.

Myth 2: You Won’t Learn Anything New. Wrong again!  A lateral move means you will be learning a different part of the business operation—and this is important information to know. Even if you are going from just making burgers in the kitchen to manning the cash register, you will know more aspects of the business just by virtue of having worked in the different areas, than your peers. A sideways move can offer a chance to meet a new group of colleagues. You add connections to your professional network and learn to interact with a whole new team, and, in the process, broaden your interpersonal skills.  Applying skills you already possess in another aspect of the business not only deepens and expands that skill, but allows you to contribute in a more impactful, value-added way.  This exposure can be significant when thinking about the larger, longer term development picture.

Myth 3: It’s the Best Way to Escape a Boring Job. Not necessarily!  A great mentor once cautioned me to always be moving toward something rather than away from something. When you are simply trying to escape you may be paying far more attention to what you are leaving than what you are stepping into. That kind of move can end in disaster if you land in a situation even worse than the one you are leaving. Lateral moves can be strategic elements of your overall career plan. Examine the option carefully before choosing a lateral as an escape hatch. Consider shadowing someone currently in the role. Find ways to observe a ‘day in the life’ of someone who is already doing the job you are considering. Ask questions to determine whether or not this move is driving you toward something more interesting or just a chance to vacate a currently non-exciting reality.

Myth 4: People will think you’re a loser. Rethink That!  There’s a saying that goes ‘Your opinion of me is none of my business.’ Well, when it comes to careers, others’ opinions are your business. What colleagues say about you can influence the opportunities that come your way. The key with a lateral move – and any other career move for that matter – is to be clear about why you made the choice. Talk to people in your career audience – the individuals whose opinions really do matter – the people who might have input into your future opportunities – about why you are taking a lateral move, what you plan to learn, how you will use the experience to build expertise and organizational knowledge. Check in with them from time to time to underscore your progress and growth.  The folks you identified in your career audience can become your biggest champions and advocates if they understand your intentions and plans.

Myth 5: Saying ‘No’ to a Promotion is a Career Ender. Simply Not True!  Have you ever reported to someone who was not ready to be the boss? What was that like? What did you think of that individual’s abilities? The person you have in mind may have eventually succeeded in the role. On the other hand, he or she may have failed, visibly and embarrassingly. If you are not ready to take on a move up the hierarchy, be ready to explain why. And have a plan – a plan you can explain – for how you are going to prepare yourself to be ready when the time is right.  Keep the lines of communication open with those who considered you originally. When the time IS right, that door could still open. And those same people will be more apt to ask you in with the confidence that you are ready for the role.

So if you are hearing that a lateral move is a bad choice, now is the time to reconsider. If you are keeping some of these myths alive by discouraging others from thinking about lateral options, stop it now--you could be stifling their careers.