Why and how to help employees through lateral moves

How to Help Employees Step Up to Lateral Moves

When you think about your future within your organization, what do you envision? Do you anticipate moving up through the ranks into a managerial or executive position? Or if you’re a specialist, do you look forward to taking on successive roles with increased responsibility? What about lateral moves? Do they even cross your mind?

In my opinion, lateral moves get a bad rap. Naturally, when people consider how to advance their career within a company, they think first about promotions. Lateral moves tend to be discounted because they don’t signify a “step up.” But that’s an overly simplistic way to look at career paths.

Here’s the truth: Some people aren’t cut out to manage others. Some don’t dream of running a department or a business. This doesn’t mean they aren’t talented employees. Nor does it mean they should be stifled professionally.

On the contrary. The best way to support these employees is through opportunities to move across the organization, rather than encouraging them to take a step “up.” When strong employees move sideways, you can fill their vacated roles with other internal talent, recruit new hires or look into business process outsourcing services.

Why Lateral Moves Make Sense

There are multiple reasons to transform your corporate “ladder” into a “lattice” that supports lateral moves. For instance, with this approach you can expect to:

1. Invigorate Professional Development

When you recognize that talented employees aren’t suited for managerial roles, it’s important to find other ways to encourage continued growth. Carefully chosen lateral moves can further develop employee strengths, expand their skill sets, and help them contribute more fully to your organization’s goals.

2. Improve Workforce Engagement

One of the most critical reasons to support lateral moves is the fact that it boosts engagement. When people are encouraged to use their skills more fully, they feel more connected with their work. For example, imagine a promising member of the finance team shows interest in marketing.

A transfer to the marketing group can mean this employee will work harder and be happier. This is beneficial for the employee, personally and professionally. And improved productivity improves the company’s bottom line, as well.

3. Promote Cross-Functional Collaboration

Lateral moves can also improve communication between departments. Better communication can improve collaboration and remove cross-functional barriers that may have slowed innovation in the past. Plus, when employees share knowledge and expertise gained from other teams, that fresh perspective can help their new teams find better solutions to business challenges.

4. Increase Employee Retention

By enabling people to explore different roles through lateral moves, you create new reasons to keep top talent onboard. Ideally, all team members can find attractive opportunities in departments that align with their professional interests and goals. In the near-term, job satisfaction should increase. While over time, you can expect to see retention increase as costly turnover decreases.

2 Ways to Support Lateral Moves

Did you recently realize one of your team members would be happier or more effective working in a different department? There are a few ways you can prepare them for a smooth transition. For example:

1. Develop a Transition-Specific Training Plan

When employees first joined your company, a training plan probably answered their questions and helped them get accustomed to their role. Although a lateral mover is no longer new to the company, a team-specific training plan could help them step into their new responsibilities more quickly and easily.

A transitioning employee may feel intimidated by the possibility of working with a new team or other changes on the horizon. Partner with the other team’s leader to ensure a warm welcome. Share your insights about the employee with this leader, and encourage them to discuss the new team’s habits and cadence of work.

The sooner an individual understands the lay of the land in a new internal role, the sooner they can contribute and help move the team’s agenda forward. By developing strong training and actively taking a part in the move, you can help transitioning employees reach their potential as soon as possible.

2. Keep Your Door Open

You may have initially been surprised or hurt to hear that a team member would prefer to work in a different department. However, it’s best to support their lateral move. Often, an employee’s desire to transfer isn’t a negative reflection on their current manager’s performance. It may just mean they want to learn more about another part of the business or their career goals are leading them in a different direction.

So keep the door open. In the near term, this employee will need your support as well as the support of their new manager. Major career transitions often come with growing pains. Even if an employee has been with the company for several years, they may not understand much about their new role or the team dynamic. Reassuring this individual that you are available to answer any questions will ease their professional transition.

Final Thoughts

When helping employees with their careers, it’s important to assist those who are strong candidates for lateral moves, as well as those who are moving upward. This is a great opportunity to show employees you care about their professional development and trajectory, even if they aren’t aiming toward a traditional managerial position.

When conducting performance evaluations, think about which employees are well-positioned for this kind of transition. Talk with them about their interests and goals. And if they want to pursue a lateral move, follow these tips to support them.