The cry for breadth of expertise is getting louder. Senior leaders need talent that can move smoothly from role to role and challenge to challenge. Understanding the business from multiple vantage points is essential in order meet the needs of customers and anticipate what’s next. Capabilities that span functions are increasingly in demand.

Why, then, do we continue to face resistance to lateral career movement? What makes some employees see a sideways move as a step off their path or out of their career pattern? Even more importantly, what can we do to help employees see how valuable lateral mobility can be when planning a strategic career jouney?

The resistance we hear from employees generally sounds like this: “Others will think I’m not getting anywhere!” or, “I won’t learn anything worthwhile!”

Whether these perceptions are based on comments the employees have overheard or assumptions made without actual experience or fact, they can get in the way of talented people taking on roles that will, in fact, benefit them and the organization tremendously.

What’s an L&D professional to do?

What Will Others Think?

First, let’s tackle that concern about what others will think. Start by examining the ground on which you are hoping to sow more lateral movement. Just like planting a garden, if your ground is not fertile, you won’t be seeing sprouts any time soon!

What’s your messaging around lateral moves in your organization? Are they celebrated and publicized? When was the last time a senior leader announced lateral moves during a town hall? Do you publish lists of sideways moves along with promotion announcements? How do you describe those moves? When talented people take on lateral assignments, they can use the moves as opportunities to shift their own career perspectives. If the moves and the reasons for them make sense, and they are made public, they shift the attitudes of others in the organization as well.

The “generalist versus specialist” debate has been waged for years without a clear answer as to which route is the most beneficial for the individual and/or desirable to the organization. However, recently, the term “specialized generalist” has surfaced, indicating there may be a need for even those who specialize in a particular field or profession to seriously consider adding some breadth to their toolkit. Lateral career experiences are the ideal way to do just that. When professionals move sideways, they have opportunities to see the organization through new lenses, deepen their understanding of how functions interact and gain a greater appreciation for how their work fits into the big picture.

I Won’t Learn Anything New!

Moving into another part of the organization is all about learning. And not just about the technical aspects of the work – although for many, sideways moves can be a truly eye-opening experience in itself. The learning opportunities in a lateral assignment reach beyond studying a new process, adjusting to different programs, or attending a training course or two.

Moving into a different function involves meeting and collaborating with a new group of colleagues, adding connections to a professional network, and interacting with a whole new team – in the process, broadening interpersonal skills. It may mean creating relationships with a different set of clients or customers who require a different type or style of communication.

Just by virtue of having worked in multiple areas, an individual gains perspectives and experience that can be an important competitive edge when pursuing roles of greater responsibility. Applying skills already used in another aspect of the business not only deepens and expands existing skills but allows an individual to contribute in a more impactful, value-added way. This exposure can be significant when thinking about the larger, long-term development picture.

So, if you are hearing that a lateral move is a bad choice, or that interest in lateral moves is lacking or nonexistent, change that mindset! Put the word out about how developmental a lateral experience can be. Do role descriptions highlight everything that employees can learn from such a move? Do coaches and managers make employees aware of the benefits of broadening their views? Do employees who have made lateral moves have opportunities to share their experience and what they learned? (They can be very effective spokespeople!)

As the world of work continues to evolve – becoming more global, more complex and more diverse – breadth of expertise will continue to be in demand. Supporting lateral movement can be a powerful way to prepare your workforce.

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