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Ladder vs. Lattice: Why Horizontal Career Moves Can Help You Climb Higher, Faster

You’ve assessed the capabilities you have today, what you like and what you don’t like to do. You’ve also outlined the type of job you’d like to have in the time frame that works for you. You understand what you need to learn (education), see (exposure) and do (experience).

So how do you get from where you are today to where you ultimately want to be? While there aren’t just two options, the two more common paths from which you might choose:

  • Climb the ladder in a traditional sense or,
  • Lattice your way to your desired job

Only you can make an informed decision based on what will benefit you the most, in the near- and longer-term.

Climbing

Taking a vertical approach to your career makes the most sense when you are on a specialist track and you have a clear idea of the role that you would like to have, especially within a defined function such as Finance, Legal or Finance.

Technical specialists with deep subject matter expertise typically benefit more from a vertical track as each role in the career path will build upon and deepen the experience and knowledge of that person.

The pros and cons to following the vertical path are as follows:

Pros:

  • Subject matter expertise which continues to deepen and grow over time
  • Experience in the same field or functional area
  • Clearer job options to progress to within a job family
  • Comfort and familiarity with the roles, organization and people within the group

Cons:

  • Operating with a limited perspective of the business
  • Limited career advancement opportunities, especially in smaller companies or company with long-tenured employees
  • In most companies and in most industries, the job ladder concept is giving way to the lattice approach

Lattice

Your ability to lattice your way to your desired job within your current company may depend on a number of factors, including policies and mindsets around talent mobility, and your own appetite for not following the “traditional” ladder approach.

This approach to career development can apply to many job functions, and is especially critical to those of you who aspire to be general managers, senior business leaders, or any other role that requires a cross-functional and more generalist set of skills.

The lattice approach is also useful to anyone considering a career change, needing to increasingly balance work and life demands, returning to the workforce after stepping out, or anyone seeking to add a few tools to their kit.

Pros:

  • Career moves can be lateral, vertical or diagonal, with a focus on building capabilities
  • Moving across the organization and not just up within a department or functional area will present opportunities to meet and work with a varied set of people
  • By taking on a new role in a different part of the business, you will broaden your perspective of the overall business and challenge yourself to learn more, faster
  • Dialing up or dialing down your career may be easier to do

Cons:

  • Lateral moves or moving down can be perceived negatively if hiring managers do not understand the context in which you made those decisions
  • Some career moves can be accompanied with a smaller paycheck so you will need to evaluate the benefit of getting in the door against a potential loss in wages, title, or stature
  • Moving within a company or taking a completely new and different role at another company will be more challenging than moving within a job family with which you have comfort and familiarity

As you think and plan for your next career move, don’t do it in isolation. Ask your network of friends, colleagues, mentors, etc. to share their experiences with you, including the pros and cons of the choices they have made over the years.

Engage with your manager to understand what makes her successful and what capabilities she leverages to do her job. How did she acquire these capabilities and what advice does she have for you?

No matter which path you select be vigilant about keeping your goals alive and fresh and make room for the possibility that plans can and should change. Market conditions will change, your company will evolve and your life circumstances will change over time.

Create a career plan that can flex to what is happening in your life, as well as what is happening around you.

Check back next month for the final article in this three part series focused on executing your career plan.

Precillia-RedmondPrecillia Redmond is the senior director of corporate human resources and administration at Liberty Mutual Insurance. Precillia earned her MBA from the Olin School of Business at Babson College and specializes in human resources strategy. She already has her dream job and enjoys Forté events.

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