Turn Your Lateral Move into a Career Catapult

Business woman with spectacles while at workBy Robin Madell, San Francisco

The only thing between you and retirement is your replacement. Instead of looking behind you, look over.

Those are messages that Joanne Cleaver, author of the new book The Career Lattice: Combat Brain Drain, Improve Company Culture, and Attract Top Talent has for executives and professionals across diverse industries—including financial services, law, and technology.

In an exclusive interview, The Glass Hammer asked Cleaver for strategies that executive women can use to turn lateral moves into career catapults rather than career killers.

Alternate Routes

Corporate culture is steeped in images of the upward trajectory—from “career climb” to “corporate ladder” to “movin’ on up,” we’re groomed in the business world, starting at the junior level, to expect that the only way to move our careers forward is to ascend vertically.

Yet the fact of the matter is, even at top levels,  execs-in-waiting often rotate among several lateral moves before taking a final step up. A continuous progression upward on the career ladder is less common than it used to be, in part due to economic realities—so some women are opting to build their careers by stretching the ladder sideways or diagonally into a more flexible career lattice.

“Flattened organizations offer fewer traditional ‘laddered’ promotions, so today’s leaders can’t replace themselves with those following in footsteps that are now erased,” explains Cleaver. “They have to cast a wider net.”

Shellye Archambeau, CEO of MetricStream, a data analytics company, is someone who knows this firsthand. When Archambeau realized that her laddered career within IBM did not qualify her to run a smaller company, she went through three lateral moves of 18 months each at the SVP level before she felt that she had sufficient experience to step into the CEO role.

Cleaver describes Archambeau’s story, along with those of other senior leaders who have moved horizontally as part of a strategic career path, in her chapter “Lattice to Leadership.” In Archambeau’s case, Cleaver notes that the executive “spiraled to the top by plotting a series of lateral moves that not only qualified her to run a company, but increased her chances of long-term success.”

“If you move someone straight up, he becomes deep but narrow, and it will be hard for him to become a general manager,” Archambeau says in the book.

The Value of Sideways

Though the expectation that we follow in current leaders’ footsteps is embedded in many corporate cultures, the definition of a successful leader is quickly evolving. According to Cleaver, rising women can’t simply follow the path taken by current leaders for two reasons: changing business demands have changed the route, and emerging organizational needs require different skill sets.

“Many organizations flattened during the recession, wiping out rungs on the traditional career ladder,” says Cleaver. “If you aren’t mixing lateral moves into your career development plan, you can either sit on your current rung on the ladder, or see if you can take a really big step up, which is unlikely to happen unless you have fortified your skill set with lateral rotations.”

Research conducted by Cleaver’s firm, Wilson-Taylor Associates, has found that women often expect their technical credentials to speak for themselves. “You get a law degree or a certification in IT project management, and it should automatically open doors, minimizing the need for uncomfortable self-promotion,” says Cleaver. “Of course, your work never speaks for itself;  you must find your voice and advocate consistently for your accomplishments.”

She suggests that lateral rotations provide some breathing room at each level, facilitating the ability to gain several types of experience to validate your credentials. “You can demonstrate your abilities in several settings or internal cultures, and show how you innovate in different situations,” says Cleaver.

Other advantages of the lattice principle include the possibility of greater retention by creating a better work environment and more opportunities for women. Women in male-dominated fields such as technology and finance may find themselves dealing with a culture that can be “unfriendly at best,” says Cleaver. “Organizations are finding that lateral moves can retain rising women by giving them, frankly, some relief, from very male-dominated departments and teams.”

Lateral moves can also complement mentoring and sponsorship programs by creating additional room to learn challenging skills. For example, Cleaver suggests that if a woman is having a hard time managing teams, she may benefit from the opportunity to work it out by rotating through a couple of lateral leadership assignments. Such moves may provide the experience and confidence needed to successfully take a step up. “If the assignment helps women gain traction with essential partnership skills, such as business development, all the better,” says Cleaver.

All of this means that at the end of the day, latticing can serve as an effective retention tool. “Professional firms are often mystified as to why women evaporate from the talent pipeline at predictable points,” says Cleaver. “Often, women start disengaging at the senior staff and first-time manager level. Lateral assignments can help women see that there is more than one way to rise to partner.”

How to Use the Lattice Principle

Here are some recommendations on how executive women can use lateral moves to benefit rather than hurt their careers:

Think of successors differently. With the demographic skills gap, there simply are not enough Gen Xers to replace the hoping-to-retire Baby Boomers. So if you are a Boomer eyeing the golf course, Cleaver says that you likely need to be grooming your successors. Yet on the traditional career ladder, there are generally only a few candidates down the pipeline. Can you think more broadly about what your position will likely demand in the future? If so, you can broaden your definition of what a successful candidate looks like.

“Think not just about replicating yourself, but think of how your successor must adapt to higher-level technical change, a diversifying customer base, and, unfortunately, a slow-growth economy,” says Cleaver. “Look at the rising leaders in positions adjacent to the narrow pipeline. Who has the technical aptitude, plus the ability to operate through ambiguous conditions? Who has already delivered results through innovating work flow, structure, tools, and talent? You will likely discover a broader range of qualified candidates than you assumed.”

Separate latticing from work-life. Cleaver recommends that while we all owe a debt to Boomer women who pioneered many work-life benefits and related cultural change, it’s important to keep latticing distinct from work-life programs. “Lateral moves can actually complicate work-life balance—if someone is trying to gain new technical skills, for instance, to qualify for a developmental lateral move, that will only add to her workload,” explains Cleaver.

“Flex work is terrific and is a powerful productivity tool in its own right, but it is not synonymous with latticing (or with work-life balance, either),” she adds. Because of this, women executives need to be precise as they discuss both lateral moves and work-life issues, to ensure that there’s no confusion.

Time lateral moves wisely. Women may be more inclined to see the advantages of lateral moves. Cleaver suggests that this is because women tend to be more “other-oriented” than men, who may be more invested personally and professionally in hierarchical systems. “Women are less likely to trip over their own egos as they pursue lateral moves,” Cleaver says. She also observes that since many women tend to overprepare, lateral moves may feel like a grounding and confirming process.

But despite the fact that women may be more open to embracing horizontal or diagonal steps, Cleaver emphasizes that it’s important to know when enough is enough. “Of course, you don’t want to stay on a merry-go-round of lateral moves; you want to shape your experiences so you are qualified for a top spot, not a stale candidate,” says Cleaver. “Most companies are concerned about retaining rising Gen X talent, including women, so I suspect that  lateral moves are going to be used increasingly to keep them growing while they wait for the right spot to open up.”

Share your process. It’s common at women’s business events for a panel of powerful women to talk about industry trends and talent development. Cleaver has noticed that often in this situation, when the floor opens to questions, the discussion quickly shifts to childcare and work-life balance. “This used to annoy me greatly,” admits Cleaver. “But now I understand why this happens: rising women are hungry for hope that the trade-offs they are making actually will be worth it. They aren’t really asking for breastfeeding advice and toddler management tips. They are asking, ‘Tell me that I won’t regret my choices 20 years from now.’”

When given public speaking opportunities, the way that leaders choose to tell their stories can have a major impact on their audience—particularly on those who may wish to follow in their footsteps one day. (See “Using Failure as Fuel: The Anti-Bio.”) Cleaver makes the point that because business conditions are changing so quickly, current leaders can no longer simply say, “do as I did.” They must instead peel back another layer to reveal the underlying dynamics of how they made critical career choices.

“The process of plotting your career path is the real message that rising leaders—male and female—crave,” says Cleaver. “On the ladder, it was simple: up or off! While the lattice offers much more flexibility, it also puts much more responsibility on individuals to find and win developmental lateral moves. Today’s leaders need to talk about their process as well as their decisions; those are the universals.”