The corporate lattice: How lateral career moves can help you progress faster

Traditionally, climbing the proverbial corporate ladder has equated career success, especially in accountancy and finance.

But research shows that we’re moving away from the conventional corporate ‘ladder’ path, to a more flexible ‘lattice’ path.

But what exactly is a lattice?

In mathematics and chemistry, a lattice is a structure or a pattern that extends in any direction. A ‘lattice’ career move therefore can be lateral, diagonal, or even vertical, either within the same company or elsewhere.

This potentially opens up a host of new opportunities and job roles you may not have considered before.

The world of work has changed

Corporate structures are generally flatter now, so there are fewer options for people to move ‘up’, especially in smaller companies. This forces employees to make lattice moves, whether they want to or not.

Lee Owen, director at Hays Accountancy and Finance, believes a big contributing factor to this changing world is people spending longer in their jobs.

“The lifespan of our careers is the longest it’s ever been,” explains Owen. “As such, we are seeking more variety and flexibility, which for some means making non-linear career moves outside of a traditional hierarchical structure.”

Heather Townsend, executive coach and co-author of How to make partner and still have a life, says: “Generation X and the millennial’s tend to see roles in two-year stints. This means the days of people staying in one firm from trainee to partner are numbered, and so accountancy firms are now more open about hiring laterals, even up to partner level.”

Key takeaway: Flatter corporate structures, people spending longer in their careers, and the constant influx of younger generations has all led to a step away from the career ladder.

The career ladder mentality

But it’s understandable why some still cling to the career ladder mentality . The traditional ladder path offers a degree of security.

Liz Sebag-Montefiore, co-founder of HR consultancy 10Eighty, says: “Typically, you know the rough timescale of what position you’ll have and when, and how much you’ll be paid on each promotion. You know the job description at each level and who your team will be (unless people leave).”

But even where the career ladder is firmly established, it is evolving. When it comes to attaining partnership in a practice for example, Townsend says it’s now less common for future partners to have only worked at one firm.

“But this vertical route to partnership can still be right for you, if you are confident that your personal values and those of your firm are closely aligned, and that your firm is able to meet your personal partnership ambitions in your chosen specialism, within your personal timetable.”

Key takeaway: Moving up the ladder within one organisation can still make sense if you and the employer are the right ‘fit’ in all respects (and if it’s likely to stay this way).

The lattice approach

Townsend adds: “A lateral move could be the right choice if your route to partnership within your current firm is blocked by others who will make partner before you, if your firm has many partners within your particular specialism who aren’t likely to leave or retire in the short to medium term, or if you want to experience work in more than one firm.”

Of course, not everyone wants to be a partner. “Moving from practice into industry is also a good idea if you aren’t entirely convinced that you want a long-term career within a professional services firm,” Townsend points out.

Lateral moves, whether between practices or practice-to-industry and vice versa, are good for your CV, too.

“Do move sideways to get line experience if you can’t get it with your current employer – you will be instantly more employable,” says Sebag-Montefiore, co-founder of HR consultancy 10Eighty.

Owen adds that if you embrace a ‘lattice’ career path, you will demonstrate that you are open-minded, adaptable, resilient and a fast-learner.

Key takeaways:A lateral career move is advantageous if you:

  • Feel you don’t ‘fit in’ where you currently work
  • Have poor promotion prospects
  • Want to increase your commercial acumen
  • Want variety
  • Weed to improve your employability.

How to lattice your way to the job you want

If you start to think about career advancement in terms of a lattice, the choice of options may be overwhelming at first.

“There are so many jobs and roles out there, it may be difficult to decide which one is right for you at this specific point in time,” Sebag-Montefiore says.

Do you stay with your current employer, or do you look elsewhere? How do you plot the order of your moves so that you will benefit the most in the long-term?

Townsend says: “The key first step is to decide on the destination of your travel – what is your end game? Then look at this ‘to-be’ vs. your current ‘as-is’ in terms of the skills, knowledge and attitude that you need to develop to get from your ‘as-is’ to your ‘to-be’. Next, estimate what and how many moves you may need to make within or outside your organisation to achieve your end game.”

Addressing the skills and knowledge gap may be the hardest part.

“I recommend that you use the STAR approach,” says Jo Taylor, managing director of Let’s Talk Talent consultancy. “It stands for Skills, Training, Attributes and Relationships – by thinking about these areas you can hone down exactly what you need to do to eliminate the gap. You can then seek to do this perhaps through stretch assignments or through formal professional development programmes.”

Key takeaway:A lattice approach to your career requires careful planning and preparation. Decide on your end-goal, what moves you need to make to get there and what skills you need to acquire to make those moves possible.

In summary

If you want to forge the career you want, step away from dated ideas of a corporate ladder. Gone are the days when a linear climb to the top was the only way to progress. As long as you are flexible, it is worth considering lateral moves to progress your way to the top.

Read more about personal career management here:

How to shift industries – but not careers

What to do if you feel stuck in your career

How to set attainable career goals

Digital skills: one of the top 5 skills needed for high paying jobs

Iwona Tokc-Wilde is a business journalist.

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