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When lateral moves make sense

Beware of the up-and-out syndrome

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in Workplace Communication

You’re a career climber, so you figure you need to climb up, up, up. Ultimately, you do. But some of the most savvy go-getters also know when to move laterally.

“Don’t think of your career as a ladder,” says Kevin Kelly, author of New Rules for the New Economy (Viking Press, 1998). “You’ll probably make more lateral moves than upward moves. But the best move to make is lateral.”

The reason? You can pigeonhole yourself by moving up in a narrow specialty, only to find in a few years that your expertise has lost its value.

Here’s how to weigh whether to branch out or grab promotions:

What excites you? If you’re turned on by other aspects of your business—but you’re on a fast track in your current department—consider expanding your knowledge now before it’s too late. Reaching the top of a unit for which you lack enthusiasm can leave you bored.

Where’s your industry heading? Take a big-picture view of your field. If you’re involved in electronic commerce or health care delivery, for example, you’re in a fluid business that will reward those who combine technical skills with broad-based operating experience. Lateral moves thus make more sense.

If you work in certain manufacturing sectors or property-casualty insurance, by contrast, then your mastery of specialization can propel you forward. If you intend to stay in the industry for many years, you’re smart to keep ascending at a rapid rate.

How did the CEO get there? Learn the backgrounds of the head honchos at your company (and your competitors’ firms). Although there’s no single track that leads to the executive suite, it helps to understand the precedent that has been set in your industry.

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