“When young professionals think about getting promoted, they target their manager’s position. However, that position may not be available for many years.”said Christopher Thomas, Chairman at US Venture and ex-CTO of a Fortune 500 company.
“What they should do instead is take a lateral position in the company to get a well-rounded experience. That’s the best way to get promoted.”
In this article, I share two examples of lateral moves translating to promotions and a 3-step system to take a lateral position in your company.
It feels counter-intuitive to move sideways when you want to move upwards in an organization. But, if you look at your mentors’ career trajectory (even outside the corporate world), you will see that their growth was a zig-zag instead of a straight line.
A lateral position helps you get a promotion, and it enables you to stay with the company you love while pursuing a different passion.
Examples of promotion after lateral moves
Take Heather (name changed), for example. She is an engineer in a $60 billion revenue company. In performance evaluations, Heather was noted as a “keeper” rather than a “grower.” When this happened, it woke her up. She decided to change groups to further her career and pursue her passion in a different engineering division.
Eight months after the lateral move, Heather was promoted to lead her old team. A position she had failed to get while being on the team. She was promoted again in two years. (More details below.)
If you work for a smaller company where lateral positions are limited, you can add additional responsibilities to your role.
For example, in my company, the next position above me is the company president. So I switched from a pure engineering role to adding marketing and sales responsibilities.
That helped me increase my value to the company, which translates to a higher reputation, transparency, and increased compensation.
So how do you make a lateral move?
Some questions pop up immediately when thinking laterally:
- How do I decide on which position to take?
- Will I be the right fit when I have developed perfect skills for my current role?
- How will I communicate my interest to my boss and the company? (AKA will my current manager allow it?)
Step 1: Create An Inverted Organization Chart
“First, look at your company’s organization chart. It starts with the CEO and diverges into multiple functions. You will be in one vertical of the company. Then invert the org chart with all the roles and functions diverging from you. Each position in your peer level and a management level above can be a lateral role you can pursue,” Thomas’s advice.
That becomes your Inverted Org Chart.
Based on the chart, highlight 1-3 positions that interest you. Don’t disqualify yourself for not knowing the responsibility of those roles or having a gap in the skills needed. For example, if you have a marketing background and are interested in a software developer role, note it down without worrying about how you will change functions.
- Build an Inverted Org Chart
- Choose 1-3 positions that interest you without holding yourself back.
Step 2: Learn From Company Experts
How great would it be to have a question about a topic and have it answered by a topic expert? Imagine having a tax question and “snap,” a brilliant tax attorney pops up, ready with answers. You need advice for an awkward conversation at work and “snap,” Sheila Heen, author of Difficult Conversations, helps you.
To learn more about the positions you have selected, you need to learn from experts who work in those teams or are the manager of that role.
An organic way to ask questions is to take an expert out for lunch.
In quarantine times, that might mean a virtual lunch.
Going prepared with research and insightful questions will build a good impression, and they will be a supporter if you want to make a move to their team.
Here’s a sample email script you can use to ask them for lunch:
Hello <insert name>
I am <insert your name>, a <insert position> from the <insert group>. I was reading/talking to my manager about <insert interesting challenge>, and how you and your team solved the problem and <insert specific result>. [It shows you have researched their team.]
Your team’s work is fascinating, and I am curious to learn more about that and your career journey. It will help me learn how to level-up if I want to add more value to our company. Would you be open to a 30-minute lunch with me? [Clear call-to-action and context.]
I checked your calendar, and I am available this Thursday. If that doesn’t work, I can move around your schedule. [Doing the work for them to make it easy to say yes.]
Once they say yes, here are some sample questions you can ask at lunch:
- My research shows that to work in your team, you need training in X, what are the technical skills required in the job that are not covered by the training?
- If one can learn the technical skills, what are the advantages a person with my background can add to your team?
- Based on your profile on LinkedIn, you made a lateral move from group A to B, why and how did you execute the change?
After the meeting, record your insights, and repeat the process with another person from that team or start your research for the other roles that you picked. Once you have the lay of the land, you will get an idea of which part excites you and which doesn’t. Choose one lateral position you want to apply.
For example, when I was making a lateral move, I had to choose between going on the business side or the automotive testing side. I leaned more towards the testing side, but talking to an expert revealed that there is significant travel involved (to extreme hot and cold places). As a new parent, traveling was not appealing, so the business side was a better fit.
- Research the team members and managers of the selected roles.
- Learn more by taking them out for lunch.
- Record your insights and chose one position to apply.
Step 3: Bridge The Gap
You will realize that two gaps need to be bridged between your current role and getting the lateral position.
- A gap in skills for the new job.
- A gap in communication between you, the managers of the respective teams, and HR.
The skill difference can only be overcome by learning the tools or sometimes getting a new degree.
Communicating with your manager that you want to take a lateral position can be tricky or paralyzing.
If you work for a small company, as I do, you can directly talk to the company president.
If you work for a large organization with many management layers, you can use Heather’s approach.
As mentioned in the introduction, Heather is an engineer who works for a $60 billion revenue company.
She had internalized that she wanted to grow but did not see any progress in her team. So she decided to move laterally.
“Before applying for the lateral position, I was open and straightforward with my manager. I told her that my career goals were changing, and the lateral position was a better fit for me. My manager was open, so I pursued the role and would share the progress of the interview process with her.”
So then I asked Heather, “Was there any pushback from your manager?”
She said, “Yes, there was indirect pushback, and when things were getting more serious, I saw her challenging the process. So I politely asked that if I were being roadblocked. If yes, then I would need a formal rejection from the HR team. The pushback stopped after that.”
- Communicate your desire to move laterally to your current manager by being open and straightforward.
- In the rare and worst-case scenario where the current manager tries to sabotage the move, ask for a formal rejection from HR.
Take the leap
Getting promoted in a company can often feel like an esoteric thing that is not in your control. Taking a lateral position can help you get promoted at work.
At the very least, it can help you pursue a different passion (even if it means an entirely new function) without having to move away from your company.