On Career Moves And Aspirations: why vertical and horizontal moves depend on your aspirations

It was the start of a new academic year. As with every year, schools may see some changes in the teaching staff population. Some would have moved to assignments in other places, new teachers may have come in, while others may have resigned.

I entered this school new, having worked in another place before that year. New place, new colleagues, new culture and new job scope. I was not the only one though. Several others came into the school too, taking up new job scopes and additional responsibilities. There were some other changes within the teaching population, with some taking up new portfolios and some leaving.

Fast forward to six months later. One of my colleagues who joined the school at the same time with me decided to resign. I was surprised by her decision, but did not ask her why she made that choice. I assumed her decision was partly due to her wanting to spend more time with her family too.

Another six months passed. This time, another colleague who joined the school the same time as me also chose to resign. I was surprised for a second time. What exactly happened? Was the transition that bad for these two colleagues of mine?

I recalled this episode recently when I spoke with a junior colleague about her career aspirations. My junior colleague had expressed her desire to work in a new environment in a leadership position, and was very confident that she will be able to learn and do well. I listened and somehow recalled this episode, where I had two colleagues resigning within a year of transiting to a new work environment and position. I shared this with her and cautioned that sometimes reality may not be what we make it out to be.

Was I dampening this junior colleague’s aspirations, or even thinking that she cannot transit well and do the work? Was it a case of me being older and having experiences that I could provide insights for the younger ones? Or was it a case of me trying to tell the younger ones not to be too ambitious and in a hurry? I thought about these questions over a long time since my conversation with this junior colleague. I am very sure I am not doubting this colleague’s work capability, nor am I doubting that she cannot survive in the environment.

But I remain uneasy. I wonder if having high career aspirations means a person must progress upwards all the time. Surely there is a case to be made for learning horizontally as well?

This is when I recalled the concepts of horizontal and vertical career moves. The two are not mutually exclusive and may even complement each other.

Vertical and Horizontal Career Moves

All of us are familiar with the typical career progression moves in any organisation. Someone starts off as a junior executive, performs well and is given more responsibilities, and possibly a bigger portfolio. As the person does better, he or she is given managerial duties, becoming a manager, and eventually taking leadership roles in a department, division or even at the country or regional levels. Such moves are known typically as vertical career moves.

There is another form of progression. A person starts off as an executive in a department, moves on to another department after a few years, and may continue on to a totally different area of operation in the organisation some years later. He or she may hold some managerial duties after performing this role for a few years, and when moving on to another new department, continues to hold the managerial title. This is a horizontal career move.

Comparing the two, it seems obvious that many would prefer vertical career moves. New titles, status and higher incomes usually come with vertical moves. Horizontal moves give the idea of stagnation, not just in titles and roles, but also in income. So who wouldn’t fancy having a promotion that comes with higher pay?

But that is a wrong idea to hold. Horizontal moves can also help one expand skill set and experience, and aid one to progress upwards in the future. Why so? Because horizontal moves help create depth in a person’s skill sets, and enable deep expertise and experience to dwell within an organisation. A person who has horizontal moves can also have networks within the organisation that provides advantages in carrying out his role subsequently.

I am not advocating for people to consider movements within an organisation only. It is possible for horizontal moves to happen across organisations as well. Although conventional thinking has it that when you move from one organisation to another it should be towards a higher position with better prospects, there is also value in considering a lateral move to a similar position in another company. You demonstrate your value in the same capacity to gain trust and confidence from within, so that when you are given higher responsibilities you can carry them out having established a certain level of trust from colleagues.

This does not mean those who have vertical moves only (whether within or across organisations) will be disadvantaged. If done right, those who have progressed vertically and have made strategic choices in their movements can also develop networks and expertise to help them function effectively in their roles. How many are able to do that well, is another question altogether.

Examine the Reasons for Moving first

All of us want the best for our careers. Some of us will have higher aspirations than others. We may achieve them, depending on the opportunities made available. But in trying to achieve our aspirations, always think of the next few steps you may be taking, then ask yourself how making this immediate next move will help.

This is where I like what Karen Young suggested in her article: think about the three buckets of skills you will need in our career lifetime. We will need technical and project skills, and competencies, but in varying degrees at different times. We need more of our competencies when moving into leadership and managerial roles, and more of technical and project skills when moving into new areas. Hence it is good to plan out what we have now, and what we will need if we want to move to another position (vertically or horizontally).

Perhaps one useful way is to list out your career plan, then look at your existing skills and competencies, before brainstorming the possible steps to take next. Whether you are just starting out, have worked for about 5 to 10 years, or are comfortable with what you have, it never fails to pay to consider this. After all, in today’s context, change can happen suddenly and disrupts our lives. Why not prepare for any eventualities?

What do you consider when making a career move? What will be some advice you will give to colleagues wishing to make a career move? How much of your personal aspirations come into play when thinking of career moves?

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