Lateral moves can open new, fast-track career doors

To make it to the highest levels, IT managers should consider lateral moves while climbing the IT ladder. Lateral moves can offer broader experiences and new skills, which can lead to more promotions down the line.

A funny thing happens in many IT managers’ careers as the managers get older. The initial meteoric rise to the top appears to stall and it becomes harder and harder to move ahead in the organization. This happened to me early in my career.

Straight out of college I took my first IT job at Eastman Kodak and thought I was on the fast track to executive management. In my first four years, I received four promotions. As I looked ahead, I thought that there were maybe five more positions between my job and the CIO. Then, upon further consideration, I realized that the fast track only goes so fast. After all, how realistic was it that I would be promoted every year until I was the 29-year-old CIO of Eastman Kodak?

That initial reality check—that the technical ladder only goes so far—is just the first of many career revelations I have had during my IT tenure.

Another important career revelation for both new and mid-level IT managers is to understand how lateral career moves can be crucial, and often mandatory, to keep climbing up the corporate ladder.

Understand the organizational structure
The reason that senior positions are harder to reach is that, at some point, the organizational structure becomes a pyramid. A company needs fewer and fewer managers and senior technical specialists.

For instance, each department only needs one department manager and each IT organization only needs one CIO. It doesn’t matter how strong and talented you are. You are not going to move into a CIO position if a CIO is already there.

Defining a lateral move
A lateral career move is typically a job change that brings different responsibilities, while keeping the same job title.

Keeping the same job title (or job grade in some organizations) means that your level of responsibility is similar in the new position. For example, a number of years ago, I was a department director with almost 100 people reporting to me. After three years in that position, I took an assignment to help roll out project management methodology to our worldwide IT organization. In a little over a year, I was the program manager of this worldwide project management deployment.

Both of these positions were at the same grade level and the second was obviously a lateral career move. As a director, my job was almost entirely people management and organizational management. As a program manager, my job was almost entirely project management and organizational change management. Both positions were extremely challenging and required a person with similar job skills and experience.

Why would you take a lateral move?
There are a number of reasons to consider a lateral move. These include:
  • It may help you get promoted. Each level up the organizational hierarchy offers fewer jobs than the current level. The question, then, is: how are these higher positions filled when an opening occurs? Let’s say, for example, that a VP position opens up. One IT manager candidate has been in his or her current position for the past eight years. A second candidate also has been around for eight years. However, during that time, he or she has worked on several medium-sized projects, and as team leader on a special support team. Assuming both are good candidates for the position, the person with the broader amount of experience will typically get the nod.
  • It will keep you from being bored. Each job you take has its own learning curves. At some point, you get to where you have mastered the position and you know pretty much everything there is to know. Some people like to stay at that comfort level for a long time. Others get bored. In many cases, you will want to take a lateral position so that you can experience that personal and professional growth cycle again, and have some new challenges to tackle.
  • You’ll learn new skills. Most lateral moves provide an opportunity to learn new skills. They could be technical or professional skills or both. It is rare that you will move to a new lateral position and have the exact same job responsibilities that you had before. So, in addition to escaping boredom, a lateral move allows you to add new skills and experiences to your resume.
  • You’ll meet and work with new people. Another benefit of taking a lateral move is the ability to work with new people and new teams. In many jobs, a large part of the job satisfaction is related to the people that you interact with. People are often hesitant to leave their current positions because they know all the people they work with. But some people like to move to new positions for the same reason.

Head sideways to move ahead
There are many reasons why taking a lateral job position can be a step in the right direction on the fastest path upward. And, even if that is not your ultimate goal, moving laterally within your IT organization clearly offers a slew of benefits.

You get to pick up new skills, new experiences, and new business knowledge, and you get to work with new people. Lateral moves will generally lead to a continually rewarding career experience.

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