In her 11-year career at AT&T Inc., Alyson Woodard has held six different roles, and she has never had the same title for more than three years.
Her most recent job title was director of retail execution for the South Texas retail market, and she is the director of call centers for the same region. All of this jumping around between job titles and divisions of the business is because of a development-related trend that is becoming more common throughout the business world: lateral career movement.
With job growth declining and more baby boomers refusing to retire because of a stagnant economy, there are fewer rungs at the top of the corporate ladder to reach for. This has caused many organizations and their employees to consider the value of lateral career moves to an equivalent role within the organization, usually with a similar pay rate and title.
These moves are beneficial for both parties. By encouraging their employees to move laterally within their organization, companies get to hold onto prized employees as they develop and apply their talents to different sectors of the business. These moves give the employees new experiences and skills that they would not have received at their previous position, making them more attractive candidates for high-profile leadership positions down the line.
Plus, many executives are finding that moving laterally is the quickest way to move upward. Woodard moved from HR before her jobs in retail and call centers, but said the learning and development she received before changing roles made her transition almost seamless.
“All of my roles have been pretty drastically different,” Woodard said. “The structure of the program that our learning and development team puts together — not just the technical program but the leadership programs — is very tightly aligned with what our chairman’s strategies are. So even if you aren’t in that particular part of the business, you’re learning about the priorities and the execution around what the operating goals are when you do move into a different phase. The learning curve is almost cut in half, if not more, because I immediately know what has and hasn’t worked in the past.”
At her previous position, Woodard was in charge of hiring, reporting to executives, training and supporting all sellers and managers in her region. She did this with a team of eight. As director of call centers, she is in charge of nearly 1,700. While this drastic increase in her job’s scope and responsibilities may seem daunting, Woodard again credits the learning and development she received with preparing her for her new role.
“In retail, I was working with folks that were doing a similar job to the one that I am doing right now and having the ability to learn from them, learn what drives the front line, what resonates and what doesn’t,” Woodard said. “The appropriate training from a strategic perspective really helps when you are out in the world.”
AT&T has seen a lot of success with lateral career movements. In 2013, 40 percent of the company’s managers made a lateral move. This enables them to gain experience, increase the breadth and depth of who they are, get more exposure and learn different things about the company, said Tammy Martin, vice president of talent management, leadership development and strategic development at AT&T.
Martin said the most beneficial part of AT&T’s lateral movement program is it gives employees the opportunity to discover how they can be the most valuable to the company. “We are benefiting from people working on new challenges, and we are seeing where people’s strengths lie,” she said. “We are getting to work inside of new teams and they are getting to work for new bosses. Virtually all of the line leaders are moving laterally between roles and moving frequently, and for a company our size, 40 percent is quite a lot.”
As moving up the career ladder becomes more difficult in the traditional sense, programs like the one at AT&T have emerged as a new model for career achievement. A 2011 Human Capital Institute and Lee Hecht Harrison study of career development and employee engagement found that 77 percent of top-performing organizations described career advancement within their organization as “featuring lateral moves as well as upward moves,” with 71 percent of those organizations saying employees move in several directions within the organization rather than just upward to achieve career advancement within their organization.
Fueling Personal and Business Growth
This type of constant movement has paid big dividends for AT&T, as well as professional services firm EY, formerly known as Ernst & Young. Both organizations have seen a higher level of engagement among all executives. It also has boosted the careers of training managers who develop reputations for nurturing and growing versatile people.
“People who don’t move get tired, so therefore the company gets tired. By constantly switching roles, it fuels innovation, it fuels leadership and therefore, personal growth and business growth get fueled,” Martin said.
Lateral moves also lead to next-level career moves by ensuring that employees are exposed to the right development-rich experiences. For example, Alison Hooker, EY Americas’ chief talent development officer,said individual partners making lateral moves likely will be exposed to situations where they lead and inspire people, serve both middle-market and large accounts, understand how to operate the business, and are keenly in tune with regulatory demands.
At EY, these types of career moves encourage executives to step out of their comfort zone and tackle unfamiliar problems so they can gain a more complete understanding of the entire organization. “Sometimes these roles involve an expanded scope or more senior title, but many times they are lateral moves that focus on broadening perspectives, deepening a skill set or exploring future opportunities,” Hooker said. “Any role changes are supplemented by other development opportunities, including: learning programs and events; succession planning; talent review and career conversations; and executive coaching focused on transitions, career directions and leadership development.”
Through this program, EY can nurture and develop an executive’s strength in a specific area and make it applicable to every aspect of the business. By doing this with all of its executives, EY has a bevy of options within the company when it is time to fill leadership positions.
“By intentionally structuring our career development opportunities and keeping them flexible, we are able to understand where our executives’ strengths and gaps exist and identify the right opportunities for the right people at the right time,” Hooker said. “This creates a leadership talent pool we can draw from internally to fulfill key strategic needs.”
Reluctance and Confusion
However, there are some challenges that arise when implementing a lateral career move. While it is no longer accurate for employees to view lateral movement as a negative for their careers, there is still the dilemma of dealing with an employee who doesn’t fit into his or her new role, or is hesitant to make any change at all.
Martin said it’s not uncommon to find people who say, “You know, I’m great where I’m at.” Leaders have to respect people when they say that, but he said it can help to try to get people involved in teams and get them engaged in new experiences “where the engagement is all around them. We have leaders here who say, ‘If there is something wrong with the fit, maybe we have to adjust the role a bit to fit that person.’”
Lateral moves also can create confusion, and a lack of consistency and continuity, particularly when clients have to deal with constant role changes. At EY, every executive is given formal coaching on each account so turnoverdoesn’t feel as drastic for the client. “Our intentional, proactive approach to career development helps minimize the impact of the change,” Hooker said. “The formal training we provide addresses every aspect of the career change.”
At AT&T, everyone who makes a lateral career movement is told to focus on what they do in their first 90 days in a new role. Martin said the company’s philosophy about transitions advocates thinking of the first 90 days in thirds. “We facilitate with people, we do it online, we put them in peer groups, and we put people together and break their work down and try to make every next few days a little bit better. We just try to find smart and quick ways to make every transition easier and faster.”
Martin said that because of having such a strong training and development curriculum, the constant shuffling of executives doesn’t have any effect on the business’ productivity. “It’s a constant restructure without actually restructuring the business,” she said. “All of the moving around helps enable development.”
In an increasingly complicated and convoluted job market, lateral career moves are becoming the most practical way for people to enhance their career, even if they aren’t being promoted to a job with more money or benefits. Although it is not the traditional way to rise to the top of an organization, companies and employees are realizing that the traditional rise to the top no longer exists.
But, while the climb to the top may be longer, their stay at the pinnacle will last longer and will come with fewer headaches. Lateral career moves offer an opportunity to learn about every aspect of a company so that when people are promoted to executive-level positions, they have a firmer grasp on everything they must oversee. It also allows employees to become familiar with peers within the organization, offering the opportunity for valuable relationship building across different departments.
Woodard swears by the process of lateral career movements. She said she would not be at this point in her career if she had simply waited to move up the ladder.
“Everybody likes to get promoted, don’t get me wrong, but going through this and knowing from each job to the next how much each one prepared me for the next is experience that is really valuable,” Woodard said. “I know this is cliché, but it really is not so much like a ladder as it is a jungle gym. In a company you move from side to side, up and down, any way to get forward.”