Career Advice Nov 14 2011

The 10 Risks and Rewards of a Lateral Career Move

By kelly eggers

Up may not be the only way to go when it comes to building a career these days.

Take Mary Tuuk, a high-profile female exec at Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati. She took a lateral move last month to run the bank's Western Michigan operations from Grand Rapids, Mich., relocating from the company's headquarters where she had a staff job as the bank's chief risk officer. Tuuk, 46, told FINS that the new position would give her profit and loss experience, an essential skill if she wants to compete to become the bank's chief executive.

More people are making lateral career moves like Tuuk's as slow job growth, corporate cost-cutting and fewer retiring baby boomers are blocking the traditional upward climb. Such moves enable folks to build a stronger skill set and boost their feelings of job security before angling for promotions.

Career coaches say that horizontal moves are necessary for advancement within a company today, but they caution that not all are created equal. Here are ten points to consider before saying "yes."

Related: Fifth Third's Tuuk Moves to CEO Proving Ground

Where You Are in Your Career

When you first start working, getting experience in a variety of areas can help set your direction. "In your early years with a company, lateral moves are important because they give you lots of experience and knowledge about the company, as opposed to taking vertical moves that may not provide a full understanding of the company," says Nancy Mellard, national leader of CBIZ Women's Advantage, a business networking and mentorship organization for women. You gain tenure with a company, while also scoping out different business functions to find what's right for you.

People with obvious missing experience can also see advantages. "If you have holes in your resume, you could benefit significantly from a lateral assignment which fills those holes," says Lynne Sarikas, executive director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston. "It provides an opportunity to build your experience, knowledge and exposure in an area you're currently lacking in."

It Expands Your Network of Contacts

Strengthening your Rolodex is always important, particularly now when who you know and who knows you can translate into long-term job security. Lateral moves "enable you to expand your internal network," says Sarikas. "You learn new things – both about the company and its products as well as new skills."

Making your face a familiar one across different facets of an organization will get you a deep network of allies, provided you do a good job and work to make a solid impression. "Have patience that the promotional moves follow the development that comes from lateral moves," says Tom Armour, co-founder of High Return Selection, a recruitment agency for small- to mid-sized businesses. "The vast majority of company leaders have great respect for those who are willing to move laterally in order to move up."

You Might Need That Experience Later

While the experience you get with a lateral move may not seem worth it initially, it could be critical later on. "To seriously assess a lateral move, you need to think about your longer term career goals," says Sarikas. "What skill sets and experience are valued by the organization and what's required for the future positions you aspire to hold?" If you're in sales, for example, but need to understand distribution or manufacturing to get to the top, making that lateral move might be the only way to scale the ranks.

Having a broader knowledge base also can make you a more attractive candidate in general. "Often, career advancement opportunities go to those who have a broad base of knowledge within the company or the industry and who have developed critical skill sets," says Sarikas.

It Provides a Backup Plan

Developing hands-on experience in multiple areas of business can be a marketable knowledge base. It can give you a fallback plan if you find yourself out of work or your industry becomes less relevant over time.

"Twice in my career I have taken lateral moves in title and compensation, but the moves were to a different industry where I was challenged to use my existing skills in ways I had not previously," says Wendy Komac, a turnaround specialist and author of I Work with Crabby Crappy People.

"Once I had worked successfully in three different industries, I had the data to prove that my success as a turnaround specialist was based on my unique strategies and not on my expertise in a specific industry. That opened up doors that wouldn't have opened had I just stayed in one spot."

It Keeps You From Getting Bored

Especially if you're feeling sluggish, learning a new skill or trade could help reinvigorate your career.

In January of 2007, Elle Kaplan, CEO and founding partner of Lexion Capital Management, a New York City-based financial advising firm, left her job in investment banking for a job as a financial advisor. "My paycheck took a hit, and some of my friends mocked the decision, so perhaps my ego took a hit as well," she explains, but the lateral career move was the right one.

"I was a thriving success as a financial advisor," Kaplan says. "Within two years my clients were urging me to leave and set up my own firm." She did just that, and says she finds her current job more exciting because it is more consultative than transactional.

"Once you accept a lateral move, dive into it fully and develop as much expertise as possible," says Armour.

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Moving horizontally, however, isn't always a good idea. Here's when to turn that offer down.

It's the Wrong Kind of Experience

Doing something different for the sake of doing something different doesn't cut it. "If it doesn't necessarily build your skill set or your internal experience, it offers little value to future advancement," says Sarikas. Unless want to make a complete a career change, ensure that any experience you may get won't make hiring managers and recruiters look at your work history with a sense of confusion.

You're Under Pressure

It's never a good idea to do something out of desperation. Taking a lateral move because you're concerned your job will be eliminated or your boss is pressuring you won't help you advance.

Early in her career, Sarikas worked with an organization that required lateral moves among its managers to help diversify their skill sets. "It was only marginally successful because it was forced on many of the managers who did not embrace the assignment as a learning and career-building opportunity," she explains. "Without training, managers didn't necessarily have the knowledge or skills to succeed in another functional area."

Make an exception if high level execs ask you to take the move as a favor, but be sure you fully understand the role. Some companies that are downsizing encourage employees to take title changes, which could be demotions disguised as horizontal moves. You don't want get a fancy new title only to find out it was a move to phase you out.

You've Already Made Lateral Moves

Some hiring managers see red flags if all your job changes in recent years haven't moved you up the ladder. "In search, we look for trends and trajectory in an executive profile," says Brian McGowan, managing partner of Aquinas Search Partners, an Atlanta-based executive search firm.

"Sometimes a move from one functional area to another or from one sector to another is a positive signal that the executive has demonstrated potential to grow," McGowan says. "We also can identify fairly quickly when an executive has topped out." Make sure you're building up relevant, useful skills and competencies, so you appear to be adding value instead of becoming stagnant.

Your Standard of Living

Assuming you're gainfully employed, a new challenge that doesn't come with a sufficient paycheck isn't worth it. "Unless you are seriously unhappy with your current position and need a change, taking a cut in pay or a job with fewer benefits and no sign of future pay increases may not be in your best interest," says Maribeth Gunner, Career Services Coordinator at Excelsior College in upstate New York. "A lateral move should be just that – relatively equivalent to your current standard of living."

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

Always keep your destination in mind when weighing how a move will impact your career trajectory. "If a lateral move will not move you any close to your career goal, it's probably not a prudent step," says Gunner. "Taking a job which leads you further away from your passions can affect your attitude, productivity, and overall satisfaction with your work."

Whether it's a vertical or horizontal promotion, don't lose momentum and cease any upward movement. "Think of a lateral move as just one step along the career path, and have a destination in mind," says Armour. "The stronger and more capable a person can make themselves, the more valuable they will be to any company."

Write to Kelly Eggers



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