Sometimes the best way to advance your career in the long-run, is to take a lateral move in the short-run. Career advancement opportunities are frequently offered to those who have a broad base of knowledge within the company or industry and who have developed a critical skill set. Companies are looking for leaders who understand the business — not just singular functionality.
To be successful at this level, it is important to have a strong knowledge of the business and a broad understanding of the entire organization. While promotions are great for advancing your career, sometimes the most strategic career move is a lateral move to gain needed experience and skills that contribute toward the crucial understanding of the business and to prepare to claim a role in senior leadership. Often exposure to operations in another country or state adds perspective but so does time spent in another functional area. So, how does one determine if a lateral move is strategic?
To determine if a lateral move is right for you, it is important to consider your long term career goals and to honestly assess what skills and experience are critical to achieving those goals. What specific skills and experience are valued by the organization, and what is required for the future positions you aspire to hold? Assess your current skills and identify the gaps. Develop a plan to fill those skills gaps in your resume. Do your homework. Talk to people who hold the positions you aspire to, and ask what skills and experiences they consider critical to success. The more networking you do in your field, the deeper understanding you will garner of the criterion needed to prepare you for the future roles of your choice and that make you stand out from the competition.
If this honest analysis identifies holes in your resume, this discovery is not a drawback but rather, an opportunity presented to you that can enable you to benefit significantly from a lateral assignment which offers that needed experience. In addition to making you better qualified for future opportunities, it also signals to management that you are committed to advancing in the organization by deepening your skill set and understanding the broader business. Your willingness to take a lateral move to intentionally develop needed skills and experience is a clear signal to senior management that you are serious about a successful career: you are willing to walk the walk.
When to consider a lateral move
If the lateral move provides an opportunity to build your experience, knowledge and exposure in an area that you are lacking, this could indeed be a wise investment in your future. Consider the added value of expanding your internal network – more people will know you and what you can do. If you are learning new things about the company and its products or services, that knowledge can be valuable to your longer term plans. You should take advantage of the lateral opportunity if it provides valuable skills and experience required for your longer term career goals.
Assess in what functions your experience lies. If your experience has been exclusively a particular area, you should consider a move to another functional area in order to gain valuable new perspective and insights. Identifying what you need to move forward regarding skills and seeking opportunities that provide that learning opportunity can significantly enhance your career. It is important to build a strong foundation of key business skills in order to move successfully into the more strategic roles.
When not to consider a lateral move
If you are considering a lateral move because you are tired of what you are doing and want a change, it is not a strategic move. Unless you are going to learn new things and gain additional skills and experience, staying at the same level can be a career- limiting move. Do not accept a lateral move just for a change of pace. You owe it to yourself to be more strategic about your career. If your job is being eliminated and your only alternative is a lateral move, you may think about it differently but avoid the temptation to accept anything simply out of desperation. The position needs to interest you and add value to your longer term career goals that you have identified.
What if the senior leader of the company asks you to do something specific in a different area for a defined period of time as a special favor? This is a win-win and will groom you in the manner of thinking at the senior level. Why? Helping out a colleague or senior manager can benefit your career. You may have been asked because your senior leaders want to gauge how well you perform in a different function. This may require stepping out of your comfort zone, but part of the career path, no matter what the course, usually involves taking another perspective. This cross-over, if you will, increases your value by exposing you to something new and different and this can set you apart from the pack. We’ve all known individuals who may have been reluctant to work as a team – and we likely remember how it felt on the other side. Being seen as a team player can be good for your career and it demonstrates versatility and a non-verbal way to communicate that success is often achieved by group effort. It is not unusual for temporary, at-the-same level moves, to result in significant new opportunities down the road if all goes well. Being open to new experiences is part of career growth.
Big Picture Exposure
Exposure to the various aspects of the business may not be enough to land in the corner office however. There are other tenets that come into play in achieving a senior position. Understanding and knowledge are two themes whose roads all point back to success. The most valued functional professionals also need to understand the business so they can effectively manage their functional organization or the overall company. All managers benefit from some understanding of marketing, sales, finance, supply chain and product management
Soft skills are important for success in leadership as well. Managers must have the ability to communicate effectively, analyze data, persuade others when they have no authority over them, and work in cross-functional teams. With complex issues, managers need to understand the implications of human resources, risk, technology, legal, compliance and business continuity issues.
Successful managers do not need a detailed understanding of accounting since they won’t be booking the debits and credits; however, they must be able to read a balance sheet, income and cash flow statements while understanding the impact of business decisions on the company’s finances and business decisions. They must understand the internal financial system and be able to analyze and demonstrate knowledge of the data in the reports to help support future decisions that merit success.
When senior managers are looking to fill key strategic positions for the organization they are looking for individuals with the right skills and experience. A combination of lateral and promotion career moves can prepare for you for the next move in your career. Managers will also look for candidates who have demonstrated leadership skills, an ability to work projects to successful and timely completion and a track record of generating solutions to business problems. This toolbox will help you develop as a proven senior leader over time.
Moving lateral to move up
The decision to invest in your career by accepting a strategic lateral move to expand your knowledge and experience can be the key to longer term success. Doing the homework – expanding your skills, helping other team members, crossing over into new territory even temporarily, and enhancing your resume are all components that will hasten your goals, short- and long-term to present yourself as a supply chain leader and stay competitive with other candidates. These efforts, over time, can enhance your career options and your personal fulfillment.