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In Praise of the Lateral Move: Think of Your Career Path as a Lattice, Not a Ladder


For decades, the traditional metaphor of career progression always involved a ladder-equal steps in the same direction and always in an apparent up, up, up trajectory. But career growth these days isn't always about progressively ascending higher until you reach that top rung. The explosion of workplace flexibility is also extending to career planning, which is more likely these days to encourage (and reward) horizontal, cross-department, and cross-industry moves.

"One of the great pieces of advice I got early on was don't think about your career as being linear. Think about it more as a lattice," said Suzan McDaniel, CHRO of Edward Jones. "Be open to building new skills and getting new experiences throughout your career. In fact, seek those out to be able to learn and grow."

McDaniel followed a path of various HR, talent, training, and consulting positions at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Hewlett Packard, and BHP before landing the top HR position at Edward Jones, she explained during the latest edition of the SHRM Executive Network's People + Strategy podcast.

"In that career lattice, yes, there will be promotions. But there'll also be lateral moves, and sometimes you grow and develop the best in those lateral moves where you're really stretching your comfort zone," McDaniel said. "Think about gathering different sets of experiences so that when other opportunities come by, you'll have the right tool set to be able to jump into those."

For example, early in her career, McDaniel worked in talent management at a consulting firm. But at Bristol-Myers Squibb, she was asked to move into an HR business partner role leading a new global division, which required using a different set of tools from those she used in her previous work.

Suzan McDaniel, CHRO of Edward Jones Suzan McDaniel, CHRO of Edward Jones

"At first, I was like, oh my gosh, I'm stepping out of my comfort zone," said McDaniel. But those new responsibilities taught her the value of "being comfortable with being uncomfortable."

"I learned such a great deal from that experience about how you think about talent strategies to enable business strategies," McDaniel said. "Thinking about how you lead really diverse teams from all over the world and creating that inclusive environment and that skill set continues to serve me well today."

In addition to thinking about flexibility in their own career paths, it's important for HR professionals to remember that employees in their organizations may benefit from-and want-the same thing. Your employees may be more interested in nonlinear career moves than you think.

In fact, a study cited in Harvard Business Review found that nearly 90 percent of employees said they'd consider making a lateral move with no financial incentive, for multiple reasons. The message: Many U.S. workers are motivated by growth opportunities that offer personal fulfilment but not necessarily an immediate promotion or bigger paycheck.

More Takeaways from Suzan McDaniel in the People + Strategy podcast:

Your talent strategy: Buy it, build it, borrow it or bot it? "The talent shortages are forecast to continue, so you have to think about how you are growing and developing. … So we have to identify new skills, new capabilities and then develop an integrated talent strategy for the workforce around: Do we buy the capability in our hiring strategies? Do we build it with our internal talent and reskilling? Do we borrow it with our contractors and/or consultants? Or, the fourth one, do we 'bot it,' and that's where the exciting world of generative AI is coming into play."

The office as a tool, not a destination. "We've got folks that are hybrid, some that come to the campus every day and some home-based associates. … But we do have and encourage opportunities for everybody to come in for certain types of work, so that we can ensure that we're experiencing our culture but also getting the right business outcomes."

"As we think about our headquarters locations, we like to see the office as a tool. It's a tool to do our best work together. It's not just being about a destination. We view it as a space to come together for really intentional in-person interactions and gatherings. So think about where you need to collaborate and create brainstorming, business strategy and planning. Think about coaching and feedback. Think about onboarding. That's a wonderful way to use the office as a tool."

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