Lateral Career Moves: When They Make Sense

Lateral Career Moves: When They Make Sense

Many people think of their career as a ladder. Start on the bottom rung, then work your way up to the next one by learning new skills and taking on new responsibilities until eventually, you reach the top rung.

But sometimes, we get stuck on a rung. Maybe we can’t learn new skills or take on additional responsibilities to get to the next step. Or, the rung above us is occupied, and there’s no way around it.

A lateral career move can help you get unstuck. In a lateral move, you move from one rung to a different one, but it won’t necessarily be a step up or on the same ladder.

What Is a Lateral Career Move? Definition & Meaning

A lateral career move is when your career takes a step sideways. Instead of moving up the career ladder (like a promotion) or moving down (like stepping back from a management role), you move to the same rung on a different career ladder. This is usually a different title and new duties but the same level of responsibilities (meaning you aren’t suddenly managing people in the new role).

There are two ways to make a lateral career move.

Same Company, Different Role

You can stay at your current company but move to a different role with different duties and a similar level of responsibility.

As an example, a content writer moves into a copywriter role at the same company. The person is still writing and creating content, but instead of writing longer articles for the blog, they now create short pieces of content (like ads or social media posts).

Different Company, Same (or Similar) Role

A lateral move can also happen when you change companies but stay in the same or a similar role

Using the writer example, if the same blog writer moves from one company to another and also moves from writing consumer content to business content, that’s a lateral move. It’s the same type of job (writing blogs) but writing a different kind of content.

Advantages of a Lateral Move

At face value, a lateral career move may not seem to have any advantages. However, a lateral career move can take your career places that staying on the same ladder may not.

Learn New Skills

Even if you love your job and perform above and beyond every day, when you’ve mastered the role, you may get bored doing the same thing over and over. A lateral move can help you learn new skills and break up the “rut” you may be experiencing.

Meet New People

Especially if you stay at the same company, making a lateral career move connects you with new coworkers. Sure, you may have hung out in the break room a few times, but working closely with a new team is entirely different than coffee break chats. You’ll likely learn things you wouldn’t have had a chance to otherwise, as well as expand your network.

Restart Your Career

Sometimes you’ve gone as far as you can up your current career ladder at your present company or on your team. And while that may eventually change, it may take longer than you’re willing to wait. A lateral career move can help you restart your climb up the career ladder faster than waiting for things to change in your current position.

Disadvantages of a Lateral Move

However, there are some disadvantages of a lateral move to consider too.

Possible Pay Cuts

It’s possible that while you’re taking a job with similar duties and responsibilities, it doesn’t pay as much if you change companies. Even if that’s not the case, starting at a new company often means losing out on the benefits (vacation, retirement contributions) you currently have.

And though you likely won’t lose out on vacation time or other benefits when you make a lateral move at the same company, you may take a pay cut if you make the switch.

Question the Path

Only you know what’s right for your career and why you’re making a lateral move, but future employers may wonder why you’ve stalled out in your career. Some companies feel that if each new role isn’t a step up or forward, you’re not the right hire for them. They may (incorrectly) think that you aren’t interested in leading or taking on new responsibilities.

Time Delay

Though a lateral career move can help you move forward, the reality is that it doesn’t help you move forward right now. Moving sideways means that you may set your career back a few years while you learn new skills and prove yourself in the job. Eventually, you’ll climb up, but it may take longer than you’d like it to.

How to Make a Lateral Career Move

If you’ve decided a lateral career move is the right move for you, ask yourself a few questions before taking the (sideways) leap.

Ask Why

Make sure you’re making a lateral career move for the right reasons. If it’s because you dislike what you’re currently doing, make sure your next move isn’t too similar. A career change may be a better choice. Likewise, if the industry is the problem, a lateral move at your current or even a different company may not be the best choice either.

Ask What

Have a clear idea of what you want to get out of the move before making it. Do you want to learn new skills? Are you trying to move up but sideways is the only way to get there? The clearer you are on what you want to get out of the move, the better the move you’ll make.

Ask Around

Before leaving your current company, talk to your boss about your plans. In large companies, making a lateral move might be as simple as applying for an open role in another department. But in a smaller company, you might have to get a little more creative.

Work with your company to see if there’s a solution that lets you stay. Maybe you can take on some additional duties while offloading some of your present ones to create a lateral move without having to leave.

Be Ready to Answer

Though you may have answered all of your questions, be prepared to answer why you want to make a lateral move during job interviews. The reason may not be obvious to the hiring manager. Practice an answer that explains how a lateral move can improve your skill set or help you move forward professionally.

When Sideways Is the Right Way

For many people, their career path resembles a ladder: a straight line from bottom to top. But when a rung is blocked or even broken, it can make sense for your career to make a lateral move. You may just find that jumping to a new ladder has a significant (and positive) impact on your career growth.

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