The road to success is rarely a linear one.
Lean In author and Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg said it best: “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.” Consequently, knowing when to make a lateral career move can be every bit as important as knowing when it’s time to take a shot at a quantum leap ahead. Several steps can help an executive on the rise understand which lateral moves are going to lead forward and which are just going to sidetrack.
Assess your end goal
Before signaling anyone within your organization that you’re considering a change—even if it would be an internal move—assess your end goal.
If, for example, you’re someday hoping to land in a C-Suite role, do your homework. How did the person currently in that position land there?
Note that Google may not be a sufficient tool. Do some real digging. Did he write a thesis to receive his MBA?
If so, you may be able to access a copy at his alma mater’s library—many keep theses on file in perpetuity. Where did he take his first post-grad job? Who were his early mentors? Learn his career track and others like him at your company’s competitors.
Understand that no two executives will have an identical path to their leadership positions but try and gain insight into what patterns and trends you can. Then, taking into account some of the lateral moves you’re considering, decide whether or not your role models would have made similar choices on their paths to success.
If the move seems too far-fetched to be productive, it just might be. Then again, sometimes bringing a fresh perspective to a leadership role can be incredibly desirable.
However, be sure that you’re making an educated decision to pioneer a new path to the C-Suite rather than simply shooting for an open position because it’s available.
Prioritize making your move internally or externally
Next, determine whether or not you plan on making a lateral move within your company or to another corporation.
If you plan on making your lateral move internally, get to know the people on your desired team and try to learn more about the work done by the person or people holding the position you would ultimately like to transition into.
Know that there can be some added benefits to remaining in-house whenever possible: you’re a known quantity and you retain your seniority.
You also may position yourself to the company’s leadership as a flexible employee who can be successful in a variety of roles without risking the incurring red flag of a resume laundry list of different companies.
If, however, you’re planning a move to a similar position within another company, it’s important to do a full and impartial audit on the future of that business and the people within it.
Does your vision align with that of the company? Where have people in your desired position moved on to next? Have they advanced within the company or do they seem to trend towards achieving growth by leaving the company? Why is this equivalent position at a different company preferable to the one at which you currently work and have some degree of seniority?
Do your homework—on yourself
After you’ve completed your research into the companies and positions you are considering, it’s time to begin researching yourself as objectively as possible.
What achievements are you best able to highlight to a prospective employer?
Do you, perhaps, have an upcoming project that will vividly encapsulate your work and potential contributions to a company? Perhaps it’s better to wait until that major project is successfully completed before positioning yourself to other companies—or even within your organization.
Does your background—education, years of experience, skill set—fit the model of the recent people hired into your target position?
If not, what skills or perspectives do you have that are unique and can compensate for any potential perceived inadequacies? Having answers to all of these questions will be key in understanding how best to position yourself and when the timing is best.
If your current position does not seem to be advancing your career agenda, carefully researching your desired lateral move can help you avoid another dead-end. Avoid making moves simply for the sake of making moves: to do so can signal future employers that you are never going to be a long-term hire.