Within the world of interim management, the sideways or lateral career move is often inherent in the nature of the job, as interims transfer skills across a potentially wide range of industries and within typically shorter-term roles.

But what about lateral career movement for those management executives at CEO, CFO or HR director level? Is the most successful and effective route to the top still the traditionally vertical one? Or can a lateral move offer a viable, or perhaps even a preferable, alternative?

In this blog post I explore the key differences between a lateral vs vertical career path and I identify the core professional attributes that will prove invaluable for any senior management professional considering a lateral career move.

For many executives seeking permanent senior leadership roles, the traditional career path has often been perceived as upwards - typified by the climbing of the corporate ladder, the taking on of increased managerial responsibility and the symbolic "handing over of the gold watch" at the conclusion of your career.

The theme of the ‘career ladder’ has also developed over the years, because it is very much that: each step clearly defined; a clear route to the top with each rung representing a new (and more important!) title; a pay rise and one step closer to the top. 

The challenges with this upwards approach are many however – how tall is the ladder?  What if someone occupies the step/steps above me? More importantly, in businesses that encourage organic growth and retention (which is clearly and rightly an aspiration of many organisations), how do you keep people moving constantly upwards? 

While the vertical career path clearly still has validity, there's an increasing recognition and appreciation of the opportunities to be gained by horizontal movement, whether that's exploring different management roles across a range of functions within a single company, or transferring skills across different industries or organisations.

Adding value

There's no doubt that a vertical career path still offers many advantages in certain industries. It can be particularly suited to those on a specialist track for example, or for executives with deep technical knowledge or unique subject matter expertise. Focusing solely on a vertical career path however also brings with it the risk of hitting an upward limit. And once you reach the top, then "what next?" 

While a vertical career path may often be "destination" focused, a horizontal path places a greater emphasis on the experience of the journey. Vertical growth can often be perceived as more focused on title and tenure, whereas horizontal growth offers the opportunity to add "value."  

Moving laterally often offers the opportunity for expanding your knowledge into new areas, leveraging your existing skills and improving on skills you already have. A lateral move also exposes you to different departments, new people and a wider variety of roles, all of which can assist in laying the foundations for your upward journey. 

New horizons

Changes in our work-life balance and increased opportunities for remote working can also have significant roles to play in our career path decisions. Gone are the days when we felt compelled to stick within the one company for life.

These days two to three years in one organisation is far more the norm as we seek variety, new challenges, and a broader range of experiences. 

The vertical career path also has the potential to become limited by who or what lies above you. If a company's culture focuses on the retention of long-term employees then this can potentially put the brakes on your own journey as you wait for career advancement opportunities to become available.

Organisations too are increasingly recognising the value of lateral movement of staff both within their companies and from external sources. Managers moving laterally can bring with them fresh ideas and new perspectives and can often demonstrate greater adaptability across a range of disciplines.

Route planning

Upwards movement within a single organisation can often be perceived as offering comfort and familiarity, with clearer job options and a more defined career path. But while choosing the lateral career path may potentially present higher levels of risk, it can also offer new possibilities. 

It's worth bearing in mind too that choosing lateral or vertical movement needn't be mutually exclusive. While a management career may initially follow a more traditional hierarchical route - from graduate trainee through to higher levels of management - there can come a point where a lateral career move offers a wider range of opportunities.

In some cases a lateral move or series of moves may even be viewed as essential. In many industries and organisations, it's now widely accepted that in order to lead a business you will have to demonstrate strong operational understanding of more than one business unit, country or division. In larger PLC’s or multi-national organisations it’s also vital to move around in order to build a network of internal peers (and often sponsors) as people seek to attain senior leadership roles.

Company ethos

While career advancement is a key motivator in our decision-making, increasingly too there's a greater appreciation of aligning ourselves with companies that can demonstrate sound corporate social responsibility, that have a civic minded attitude and that value ethical practices.

The culture of organisations - their passion, social consciousness and innovation - can all be crucial attractors as we seek out new management opportunities, whether these are lateral or vertical in nature.

Key qualities for a lateral career move

So if you are considering a lateral career move, what are the qualities that can serve you best? 

  • Adaptability and flexibility - being able to demonstrate your ability to apply your existing skills in a new or unfamiliar context
  • Confidence and self-belief - being open to stepping outside of your comfort zone when necessary
  • A willingness to learn - the acknowledgment that regardless of your experience, qualifications or management level, you probably don't know everything!
  • Offering something unique - possessing a USP, or possibly even a suite of USPs, that you can replicate across a broader range of themes or industries
  • An entrepreneurial mind-set - being receptive to new ideas and open to the potential for risk or unpredictability

One of the challenges when exploring the lateral route is ensuring that you do continue to develop from a career (and earnings perspective). Moving in different directions can mean less visibility at times, which can also mean needing to focus very much on the short-term rather than the long-term. This is no bad thing and we can still learn a huge amount, but getting the right advice and support at times is crucial to ensure that moving laterally doesn’t feel like you have entered a career maze!

Everyone's career path is unique, and weighing up whether a lateral move is best for you will depend on the career stage that you're currently at. Without doubt though, creating a network of mentors, career counsellors and recruiters who can offer expertise, advocacy and honest feedback can be an invaluable part of your decision-making process.

A Guide to Interim Management

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