A lateral move can be a great tool for your career. But keep these tips in mind.

Once upon a time, your professional growth options were limited. You would continue to get promoted in a linear manner until you ran into a dead end. At that time, your options were to stay where you landed and hope the obstacle would work itself out, or leave the company for a promotion elsewhere. With those limited choices, no one lived happily ever after.

Enter the modern-day career lateral move – position changes that allow you to step sideways instead of up. A recent study by Cornerstone OnDemand revealed that 89 percent of respondents would consider a lateral move with no financial incentive. Far from being a waste of time and effort, lateral moves can actually propel you forward in a powerful way if you consider a longer time horizon.

In a difficult economy with fewer new positions and openings being created, your company may not have room on the organizational chart to give you a meaningful promotion in the near future. Perhaps you work for a small company and your boss is 15 years away from retirement with no plans to go anywhere. In some circumstances, you may not want a linear promotion but would welcome a career move. A lateral career move can be a great tool to get you what you want.  

Whatever your situation, here are three big points to consider when it comes to a lateral career move.

1. Think about your goals and priorities.

Why are you contemplating a career move, and what are you hoping to accomplish as a result? It’s OK to be motivated by a mix of factors.

Perhaps a raise would be nice. A change in responsibilities and daily tasks might re-ignite your excitement about showing up at the office. Sometimes, a reassignment is the perfect way to stop working with a manager that you don’t have great chemistry with. A shorter commute, a specific mission-critical skillset that you aren’t getting today or an assured career track could all contribute to your thought process. List all the relevant factors honestly, and rank them in order of priority to get yourself organized.

2. Consider your options: internal vs. external lateral move.

Your two main sets of options are to take a role consistent with your current responsibilities within your company, or to consider a similar position elsewhere. Both are valid possibilities depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.

If you love the company you’re at – for its mission, pay, benefits, short commute, or a fantastic culture – consider applying for a position at your current level in a different department or functional area. You get the advantage of keeping certain elements of your professional life the same while gaining a new set of puzzles to solve with a different group of people. Large companies may offer temporary or permanent transfers to another city or even abroad if you are interested in travelling.

If you would rather switch companies, an external lateral move is the best fit for you. Even if you select a position in another industry (e.g. you are a marketing assistant in a professional services firm, and you accept a similar role in a hospital fundraising department) you have your base skills to fall back on while you learn the ropes of the new field.

Remember that you may have to be flexible. My own career track is a great example. I was happy as a manager at a top auditing firm, but knew that I did not want to follow the audit partner career track. Because I loved the firm, and had always been fascinated by forensic investigations, I decided to interview for a position at the internal forensic accounting department. I was accepted as a transfer into forensics in August, to be effective November 1st.  I gave my notice to my audit teams so that they could change staffing for the upcoming year, and wrapped up my audit projects.

The year was 2008. What I didn’t know in the summer was that the financial crisis would hit at the end of September. In the aftermath, a firm-wide decision would freeze all internal transfers indefinitely effective October 1. I had left the position I was in – and watched my landing pad evaporate overnight.

What do you do in that situation? I took a deep breath and began my external search for a new opportunity. My big takeaway from that experience was the importance of keeping an open mind. No matter how confident you are that things will line up exactly as you have planned, sometimes they don’t.

3. Do your research.

Titles aren’t made equal – a manager may be that in name alone if there is no one reporting up to her! Be sure to look at actual responsibilities and opportunities that come with the lateral career move.

From someone who has successfully executed a lateral move and has watched dozens of professionals do the same, here are some extra tips for making your transition smooth.

  1. People around you might say that the lateral move isn’t worth it unless it comes with a promotion and a raise. Know your own reasons for doing this. Perhaps you’re stuck in a dead-end job and the possibility of a linear promotion is slim. Maybe you don’t want that promotion because the change in responsibilities would move you away from what you enjoy most. Be clear in your own mind first, and take what others say with a grain of salt.

  2. When switching to a new industry, keep in mind that you will have to learn quickly. The good news is that you already understand the core role. Make connections at your new company and seek out mentors that you can rely on for advice and guidance.

  3. Don’t get seduced by higher salary alone. Consider the whole package: benefits, health insurance, maternity leave policy if it’s relevant to you, the possibility of shifting your work hours to take advantage of commute patterns, a policy that allows telecommuting and the company culture will all make a difference for your overall experience.

  4. Keep the big picture in mind. No smart career move is made in isolation – so consider how this step moves you closer to where you want to go. Perhaps having exposure to multiple functional areas as a manager paves your way for a CEO track. Maybe working in the accounting department gives you hands-on experience of budgeting and reconciliations that will help you in the MBA classes you are taking. Think about how this decision helps the future you.

  5. Don’t jump laterally every couple of years. Your goal is to stay in a position long enough to learn and make an impact. Restarting your learning curve too frequently does not serve you or your company.

In closing, lateral moves are a great way to shift your career towards a new challenge. Consider your reasons and priorities – this is your opportunity to shape your next few years in a way that will serve your overall professional and personal development. Do your research and due diligence, so that you don’t make your decision based on a shiny title or a salary bump alone. Having more options puts you in a powerful position, so be open to the possibilities, go outside your habitual patterns, and make this step count.

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