Ever consider a horizontal career path?

May 9, 2018


When choosing a career path, people sometimes face the dilemma of going for the ladder or the lattice. Which direction should you take: the vertical (ladder) or horizontal (lattice)? While the benefits of vertical careers are widely known — higher status, ever-greater responsibility, bigger salary — what are the pros of a horizontal career? Can the pull of the lattice compete with the benefits of the ladder?

Unlike a vertical career, where you move between hierarchic positions in the same field, a horizontal career means you move between positions of similar responsibility in different areas of competence. Horizontal promotions have been around in large companies since the 1990s, but they are still widely misunderstood and underrated by both managers and employees. To many, a horizontal move can look more like a transfer than a promotion, because the salary might not noticeably change. So, what are the benefits of a horizontal career path?

Prepared for challenges

The main advantage of a horizontal career move has over a vertical one is being able to expand your skill set. Trying new roles and being regularly exposed to new knowledge, skills and responsibility is a great way to “anchor” yourself in the job market. When changes come, you’ll be more prepared for new challenges than someone who has only worked in a narrow part of your area. Professionals that are good at a variety of disciplines, and not just one, are especially sought-after by innovative and disruptive companies, for whom discrete skill sets just won’t do.

What do you really want?

Another significant benefit of a horizontal career path is that it allows you to explore your own interests. What if there is a career out there that is more fulfilling that your current one? What if your dream job lies not in the corner office of your department or in the same position with another employer, but actually in a neighbouring division of your existing company?

Less frustration

Promoting horizontal career choices alongside vertical ones and providing adequate incentives to employees for choosing them, also bring important benefits for companies. In the short term, horizontal career moves can help deter employee frustration at lack of promotions during periods of uncertainty or slow-growth.

Wider outlook

In the long run, as a Harvard Business Review article argues, accommodating horizontal careers makes companies fit better in dynamic markets because their employees have a wider outlook. It encourages enterprises to be more competitive by allowing them to mine better-equipped leaders. Also, vertical and horizontal careers need not be seen as mutually exclusive — while companies are still hierarchically organized, there will always be vertical careers. They’re just not the only option.


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