Thinking About a Lateral Move? Position Yourself for Success

Updated May 12, 20225 min
Thinking About a Lateral Move? Position Yourself for Success

Thinking About a Lateral Move? Position Yourself for Success

Caroline BantonUpdated May 12, 20225 min
Thinking About a Lateral Move? Position Yourself for Success

Lateral moves used to come with a stigma, an assumption that the person has been pushed out of one department and grudgingly accepted by another. Or, a job seeker who accepts a lateral job offer with a new company might seem to lack ambition.

But the truth is that, depending on the situation, a lateral move can be a wise choice for your career path. This article explains what a lateral move is, when a lateral move either within or outside your current organization makes sense, and how to position yourself for the best results.

What Is a Lateral Move and When Is It a Good Idea?

A lateral move is when you assume a new role in another part of your organization or externally but with no increase in pay grade or stature (entry-level, mid-career, or professional). It’s a way to gain exposure and skill sets in other areas, perhaps in preparation for moving to the next level. 

Internal Lateral Moves

Let’s say you are the leader of a sales team. To be promoted to vice president of sales, you might be required to understand more about how the marketing department functions. A lateral move into the marketing department would expose you to the role of marketing in the overall product journey. You could then return to the sales department at the VP level.

Another scenario for a lateral move is if you become unhappy in your current position. Let’s say there has been a conflict between you and your direct manager, and the best resolution is for you to move to another department. Or, you realize that you will not be promoted where you are, but there is a clear path to advancement in another group.

Lateral moves can be a wise choice. Gaining experience in other disciplines can prepare you for a management or leadership role. The more exposure you have, the more you can confidently move into your new role.

For more on building confidence at work, read "Overcoming Insecurity at Work"

How to Position Yourself for a Lateral Move Within Your Organization

How you prepare for a lateral move can significantly affect how successful you are. There are some politics involved and precautions to take. 

Applying for an Open Position in Another Department

In some large organizations, a lateral move is as easy as applying for a new job in a different department. Be careful here because it can be a sensitive issue. Your current boss is likely to find out and wonder why you want to move, and they may even be offended that you have not informed them of your intentions. You may have no obligation to do so, but if you don’t get the job, it could make your time in your current position awkward.

It might be a good idea to have a conversation with your manager to explain your concerns are and why you would like a lateral move to a new position. Your boss can either support you or hinder you. If the latter, then you have little to lose from applying.

Have an Ongoing Conversation with Your Manager

Asking for a lateral move is a lot like asking for a promotion. It’s best if the subject is broached and discussed over time between you and your manager, particularly during your performance reviews. The goal is to have the lateral move as part of your career development plan and for your manager to be fully on board.

Remember that your current manager may not want to grant you a lateral move because they will have to find someone to fill your shoes. So, your manager may be the biggest hurdle to overcome. Here are some strategies to get your manager to support your lateral move.

Suggest a Replacement

A good strategy is to suggest that you act as a mentor or train another staff member to do your current job. That resolves the problem for your supervisor and ensures that your work is taken care of.

Point Out the Mutual Benefits

Do you have a good relationship with your boss? If so, point out the advantages that a lateral move might bring your manager. For example, you will gain new alliances in a new department and extend your professional network. That might also benefit your boss. If your manager is head of product development and you transfer to the product research group, your manager can learn from you what new products could come down the pipeline.

Gain the Support of a Diagonal Manager

A diagonal manager works in another department, but you may be exposed to them through your work. Perhaps you work in product sales and joined a cross-functional team with DevOps. If you now have a relationship with the DevOps manager, can you ask them to support you in a lateral move?

Working in cross-functional teams is a great way to gain new skills and also to build alliances among decision-makers. Diagonal managers can influence your direct manager. The two are peers, and both are involved in decisions on promotions and moves as part of the management group.  

Be Patient

A lateral move won’t happen overnight. Your manager has to be convinced that they can manage without you, and another department must have a role for you to assume. That’s why it’s critical to begin the conversation about your career goals early with your supervisor so that, over time, a lateral move is possible.

To gain better balance, read "Work-Life Integration: Gaining Control of Your Life"

How to Prepare for a Lateral Move Outside of Your Organization

Why would you choose to move laterally if you are leaving your organization? Why not shoot for the next level on the corporate ladder?

It could be that you are burnt out in your current situation and are willing to settle for a similar position with less stress. Perhaps you don’t feel ready to take on the additional responsibilities that the next rung on the ladder calls for. Perhaps you have identified the perfect job that offers a better work-life balance.

Whatever your reasons, talk it over with your supervisor first. It’s costly for companies to find replacements for valued staff, and your company might be willing to change your current role and offer a situation with new opportunities that you can be excited about.

Bear in mind that with a lateral move, there is no guarantee it isn’t a dead-end job. You may face a pay cut, less vacation, and your retirement fund and health insurance would be affected if you change companies. So, it’s worth investigating all your options with your current employer before initiating any major career change.

Consult a Career Coach

Any career move is a difficult decision to make, but you don’t have to make it on your own. A career coach can give career advice to help you better understand your options and your situation. With the guidance of a trusted, objective expert, you can feel confident that your decision for your next career move will be an informed one.

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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