Many employers are desperate to keep talented tech pros in place, but they can’t always sweeten the pot with more money and perks. That simple fact is leading many companies to encourage lateral moves in order to keep employees interested, broaden their experience, and teach them new skills.
Some tech pros brush off such offers as ways for companies to avoid awarding promotions or paying out raises. But executives and managers argue that’s not always the case. “From a manager’s point of view, if they had the money, they’d have given it to you,” said Mike Statmore, CIO of Progressive Business Publications in Malvern, Pa.
However, Statmore thinks it’s perfectly legitimate for employees to ask why they’re being moved but not promoted. “Any employer worth their salt will have an answer,” he said. “Chances are the business is doing it because it needs something done.”
For the employee, the value of a lateral move usually reveals itself in the long run. In the broader context of your career, it can improve networking opportunities, introduce you to new contacts, and “maximize your brand-building efforts,” said Steven Davis, managing director of Renaissance Solutions, a career-coaching and strategy firm in New York that often works with technology professionals.
Remember, Davis continued, that “growth is often impacted by increasing awareness levels. What you know and who you know are not as valuable as ‘who knows you.’” Just as in football, “a lateral pass often leads to big gains.”
In addition, lateral moves “expose you to a whole new aspect of the company,” Statmore said. “If you’ve been a developer for Finance and you then move to Marketing, you become more valuable because you understand the connections between those two functions, as well as their use of technology.” That, he said, “helps you understand how the business works.”
Statmore and Davis agree that attitude has a lot to do with the ultimate success of a lateral move. “Demonstrating flexibility and openness often reflects positively in employee performance reviews,” Stevens said. “If the employee doesn’t enthusiastically discuss short- and long-term management goals and accepts this as a letdown, it will damage their image.”
Bear in mind, Statmore said, that “the move is being made because your skills are valuable here.” For example, you may have demonstrated a knack for improving workflow in one part of the company, and now managers want to apply those skills to another division. If you’re still hesitant about the prospect, he suggested, remember this cold reality: “Sometimes you have to take a sideways move to position yourself for your next step up.”
With all that said, you shouldn’t move blindly. Consider whether your new assignment will actually further your career goals. “Accepting a lateral move without a plan to move forward could and would be a career disadvantage,” Stevens said.
It might be in the employee’s best interest to have an honest conversation with the managers involved, in order to confirm their expectations. “Short-term lateral moves have the potential to create long-term upward mobility—if the person establishes milestones and confirms goals from both sides,” Stevens said. Those who don’t have a clear grasp of management’s goals, or view the move as a letdown, could end up hurting their career prospects at a company.
As Statmore notes, a lateral move can be an “opportunity for negotiation,” although not for something as significant as a raise. Look for something that “you place a high value on” that management considers a relatively minor expense, such as training. “If you say you want advanced SQL training and it will cost $3,000, that’s an easier argument for your manager to make to their boss,” he said.
Control Your Story
Finally, consider how you’ll frame your lateral move the next time you look for a new position or field a recruiter call. For one thing, don’t assume that such moves will be viewed negatively.
“As a manager, I don’t see lateral moves as a bad thing,” Statmore said. “If I see someone who’s had five lateral moves but they have the right skills and experience, I’m going to talk to that person.” During those conversations, he’ll probe “to learn the situation and make sure the moves were for the right reasons.”
Statmore suggests that candidates position themselves as something akin to a utility infielder: Tell interviewers how your company recognized how you “could go into any position and make it work.”
“Demonstrating progress to potential employers should be less about title and grade level and more about achievements,” Stevens said. With regard to your online presence, be sure to craft compelling profiles that describe problems you recognized or were assigned, the steps you took to resolve them, and the results you achieved using your technical knowledge.