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Help Employees, Managers Recognize the Why of Lateral Moves

Two women sitting at a table in a conference room.

From the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

The world is flat. Well, maybe not the actual world, but the world of work has certainly flattened. Layers began to disappear in the 1980s, with the shift to flatter organizations gaining such momentum that one firm, the Boston Consulting Group, filed for a trademark in 2005 for the term "delayering." Corporate career ladders lost rungs, middle management levels disappeared, and some C-level roles vanished. Gradually, fewer and fewer options for growing by moving up existed.

At the same time that delayering was reshaping organizational structures, consumers and clients were becoming more sophisticated and savvy. Competition demanded agility and creativity. One-stop shopping and custom solutions moved into the center circle of expectations. The first point of contact needed to know more, do more, and be prepared to handle a much broader set of requests than ever before.

While on the one hand a decreasing number of upward opportunities appeared to stall careers, on the other hand, new avenues for professional growth emerged from the need for breadth of expertise. The often ignored or overlooked lateral move surfaced as a strategic development option. So why are lateral assignments still seen as less than attractive? What can be done to fill the need for a wide scope of expertise?

Side steps are beneficial

In our decades of studying careers around the globe and, more specifically, in preparing to write our book 
Up Is Not the Only Way: Rethinking Career Mobility, here's what we have learned from talent management practitioners who are making inroads into solving the lateral dilemma.

Address three levels of why. Take Simon Sinek's advice to "Start with why." Be clear about the benefits to be realized by including sideways moves in a career pattern. Development happens through a partnership of the employee, the managers who support that employee, and the organization. Each partner needs to understand what's to be gained by encouraging lateral movement. Answer the "What's in it for me" question at all three levels to gain buy-in and build a common understanding of how sideways movement serves all three partners.

Ask yourself:

  • How will employees benefit from making lateral moves in this organization?
  • What will managers gain from supporting lateral moves into and out of their teams?
  • What will the organization gain from having more lateral movement within the workforce?

Celebrate the option. Ensure that recognition practices include announcements and congratulatory communications for lateral moves. This one can't be overemphasized. Employees watch the signals. If only promotional moves receive kudos and only steps up the ladder receive applause, the message is clear. What an organization celebrates indicates what's valued. And what is valued gets repeated.

Ask yourself:

  • How do we currently acknowledge lateral moves?
  • Where can we announce lateral moves?
  • How can we congratulate individuals who pursue and accept lateral roles?

Open the doors. Although silos have been vehemently criticized for years, they still exist. Examine how and if hiring managers are giving serious consideration to applicants from outside their functional areas. Check to make sure no one is hoarding talent by discouraging or blocking moves out of a team or department. Ensure employees have access to information about openings in other areas that might be of interest, and that they have ways of learning more and expressing that interest.

Ask yourself:

  • Where are lateral moves happening and available in the organization? Are we recognizing managers who support them?
  • Which areas could benefit from more sideways movement of employees?
  • How could more managers become involved in identifying lateral options?

Set expectations. Whether communicating with new recruits or holding conversations with seasoned employees, encourage exploration of lateral opportunities. One client we worked with to introduce career development processes made it mandatory that individuals experience a minimum of three lateral assignments before being considered for promotional opportunities.

Your workforce might not require such a structured approach to embrace lateral movement, but this certainly prompted movement in that organization. Sometimes employees might only need to know the value of moving sideways to increase the frequency of the move showing up in career plans. Consider the messaging in your organization's culture to determine whether it is affecting the way lateral movement is viewed.

Ask yourself:

  • What are recruits and new hires told about the types of career movement they can expect?
  • What types of moves do employees expect to make as they navigate a career here?
  • How can you set—or reset—expectations?

Define success. Simply saying you want to see more lateral movement is good—but not good enough to make a difference. Knowing what success will look like depends on understanding where you are right now and where you want to be.

Review the informal and, if you have them, formal, career paths your employees experience today. Determine what percentage of career moves are lateral now and how that number will need to change to consider lateral moves a substantive share of the organization's career mobility pattern. Make those percentages known to talent management stakeholders who can serve as advocates for the effort.

Ask yourself:

  • How do we currently track career movement?
  • Which types of moves are most frequent—promotions, laterals, temporary assignments, steps down?
  • What mix of moves would be best so as to maximize talent development here?

A world of experience

One size never actually fits all. (That fact applies to careers as well as clothing.) Every employee who walks through the door or signs on to start a shift is creating a career pattern that is unique to their individual journey. The experiences that make up that pattern come in all shapes and sizes—from the small but significant on-the-job, growing-in-place experience, to the big and bold three-year international stretch assignment.

Lateral experiences have a range as well. A sideways move might involve stepping into the same role in another function—technical skills intact—performing the same job but with a new view. Development in that case focuses on learning what's different about the work of the new department and adding new colleagues to the network of connections.

A more complex lateral move could include taking on a role that offers the same level of compensation and scope of influence, but resides in a completely new discipline, function, or division. Often this type of sideways move is an opportunity to apply existing leadership capabilities while learning a completely different area of the business or industry. Regardless of which types of sideways moves individuals include in their career patterns, laterals can add a breadth of experiences to the journey that other types of moves may lack.

Organizations that embrace lateral movement are building a multi-talented workforce—a workforce that can view the business through a wide-angle lens. Developing talent for the enterprise should be on the radar screen of anyone committed to talent management in their organization.

Dr. Beverly Kaye, Founder of Career Systems International, is recognized internationally as one of the most knowledgeable professionals in the areas of career development, employee engagement & retention. She was named a "Legend" by ATD, a designation given to "pioneers and prophets in the field of workplace learning and performance" work. She has spent years researching corporate strategies for developing, retaining and engaging knowledge workers. Her book, Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay, co-authored with Sharon Jordan-Evans, has sold over 750,000 copies in 25 languages. Their companion book, Love It, Don't Leave It: 26 Ways to Get What You Want at Work suggests that employee engagement is also the responsibility of the individual contributor. Her newest book is titled Up Is Not The Only Way: Rethinking Career Mobility. 

Lindy Williams
Lindy Williams is a designer and senior consultant with Career Systems International. She is a co-author of Up Is Not the Only Way: Rethinking Career Mobility.

Lynn Cowart
Lynn Cowart, vice president for quality delivery at Career Systems International (CSI), has 20 years of HR experience working with some of the most successful and powerful names in business. In her current role, she ensures that CSI delivers solutions that are simple, engaging, flexible, and business focused. She is a co-author of Up Is Not the Only Way: Rethinking Career Mobility.

This article is reprinted from with permission from ATD. C 2017 ATD. All rights reserved.

See Bev Kaye at ATD's TalentNext conference and learn practical methods for improving employee engagement. SHRM members qualify for 15% off.  Use TALENTNEXT15 discount code. Learn more at


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