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Your Next Job Could Be a Lateral Move — on Your Way to the Top

In today's workforce, "over" is the new "up." Here's how to leverage the trend

By Joanne Cleaver

Most workers now in their 50s and 60s started their careers on the bottom rungs of a ladder. They expected to climb steadily, finish at the top and declare success.

That was then.

These days, career ladders are being replaced by career lattices, either by design (the rise of teams) or by default (layoffs and shrinking industries).

Unlike up-or-off ladders, lattices are diagonal frameworks that offer a range of potential next moves for workers. On the lattice, when you make a lateral move, you aren’t being pushed aside. Instead, you’re getting a chance to cultivate new, related skills and experiences that can position you for a traditional promotion or a different job altogether.

Over Is the New Up

The ability to lattice to adjacent positions will be the defining career skill of the next two decades. In other words, "over" is the new "up."

The research that grounds my book, The Career Lattice, indicates that about 30 percent of American employers currently offer some sort of purposeful lateral career moves, even if they don't use the term "lattice."

(MORE: Why You Need a ‘Reverse Mentor’ at Work)

But whether your company offers a formal lattice system or not, one thing is for sure: Late-career lateral moves are emerging as a tactic to free up coveted promotions for Gen Xers while mining the experience of baby boomers who still have a lot to give.

That means you probably have two choices as an employee: Start plotting a lateral move now or wait for it to be plotted for you. By understanding your employers' talent needs, you can map a lateral strategy that'll be good for you and your boss.

A Career Lattice by Default

Just ask Laure Nordholt, senior vice president of sales strategy and execution at Time Warner Cable Media Sales in Columbus, Ohio. She latticed her own career and is now using strategic lateral moves to retain top performers in the Midwest region she manages.

Nordholt’s own lattice came by default. When Time Warner Cable condensed its traditional, multilevel management structure into fewer, more powerful positions, she catapulted from a regional sales vice president in charge of one state to a regional sales vice president heading up several. Nordholt’s title didn't change, but her responsibilities certainly did.

That was her lightbulb moment. “I realized that to continue to be succcessful, you have to be extremely nimble and help lead change,” she says. So from then on, Nordholt determined that her success would be marked not by her title, but by her personal reputation and influence.

As Time Warner Cable continued combining positions and departments, Nordholt saw a chance to lead by example. She oversaw several highly experienced managers who had been with the company for a long time and expected to keep working there for at least a decade. But Nordholt also had to challenge and reward her ambitious 40-somethings who weren’t enthusiastic about waiting for someone to retire someday before they could move up.

(MORE: How to Find Firms That Value Older Workers)


Her solution was to double down on developing leaders at every level in her expanded operation, helping them understand how to grow laterally just as she did. Nordholt's message to the 630 staffers who report to her: “If you get your skill set in the right place, just as my influence has expanded, yours can, too.”

One general manager overseeing a metro market had felt stymied by the apparent lack of opportunity. Since he was a top-notch trainer, Nordhotlt appointed him director of training for his entire division, giving him a sphere of influence instead of a chain of command. The division gained an in-house training expert while opening an advancement spot for an employee who was better suited to the trainer's previous job.

5 Tips for Lateral Moves

Here are five ways to assess, create and leverage opportunities for late-career lateral moves:

1. Analyze your employer's recent patterns of talent development and retention. Many firms are now team-based, opening a range opportunities for you to gain additional skills.

Ask yourself: How can my experience help bridge projects and teams across regions, cultures or product lines?

2. Join or start an employee resource group for near-retirees. The mission of the group can be to explore proactive lateral career moves that help everyone involved, such as internal consulting positions. In the process, you’ll demonstrate your leadership abilities to your superiors and expand your internal network.

3. Offer to mentor Millennials. Many employers are flummoxed by the 20-somethings, whose needs and work habits are very different from boomers'. (For more on this, read the Next Avenue article, “How to Get Along With Younger Co-Workers.”)

Employers are intrigued by younger employees’ fluid use of technology, but some also consider this generation high-maintenance. By stepping up to mentor Millennials, you can help your employer retain the latest crop of talent while adding a new dimension to your own job network.

4. Find ways to get marketing and sales experience at your current position. This lateral move can help you tee up future work as a consultant or in community service in retirement. So if you currently manage a medical office, for instance, ask to help manage advertising and PR relationships.
5. Join your employer's community outreach or philanthropy committees. You’ll represent your company in the community, better understand the needs of the firm’s stakeholders and work with local officials. All of these new responsibilities will provide you with invaluable contacts and increase your skills in ways you can later use as a consultant or board member.

Joanne Cleaver
Joanne Cleaver is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C. She covers women's issues, travel, entrepreneurship, financial planning and retirement readiness. She has authored seven nonfiction books, the most recent being The Career Lattice: Combat Brain Drain, Improve Company Culture, and Attract Top Talent. Read More
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