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Why is it so hard to move sideways?

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

It was around midnight when I got a random Facebook message from an ex-college colleague who I haven’t spoken to in years. It was a brief exchange (after all I had work the next day …) but it was profound enough to prompt me to write again after a long time.

He was at a career crossroads and wanted my advice. After a long and decorated career in the Philippines he was wondering “Is this it?” and whether going overseas was the answer he was looking for. Since I’ve been working abroad since graduation, with 2 countries now to my resume, he wanted to understand what it was like, the type of person who packs up and go, etc. As the conversation progressed he shared his doubts.

“What kind of job would be available for someone with my experience?”
“What if I’m not good enough?

It was at this point when I realised that the heart of our conversation was not about working abroad, a path that I’ve always advocated, but about growth. Yes, moving overseas can propel your professional and personal growth, but that’s just one way of looking at your career. Instead, I advised him to “Move Sideways.” How do you apply your experience or passion into a related role or industry? Or how do you contribute to your passion in different ways ie job functions. Progression is not always measured by adding a ‘Senior’ to your title.

The concept that one’s career should not be linear has been advocated before, especially by Sheryl Sandberg who famously said that a ‘Career jungle gym is better than a career ladder.’It’s not a new concept with coverage from publications like Harvard Business Review and The Guardian, but I would be curious to find out how much this theory is actually practiced in real life.

Even if people wanted to move sideways and find a job role outside of their current industry, I still find that traditional recruitment practices make it difficult to do so. Sheryl Sandberg also faced this bias when a high level Silicon Valley executive told her that her government experience would not be applicable for tech. How wrong they were.

The problem is that the typical job descriptions that suit your profile tend to be an extension of what you’re already doing. And the ones you want list requirements that you don’t have but believe you could kick ass in if you were just given the opportunity to do so. Understandably there are situations that you need to hire someone with a specific set of experience and skills, but companies should be more open to hiring outside of the box too. But how do you facilitate more of those opportunities?

Looking back I realised that this has unintentionally become the underlying story of my career so far. I’ve been wearing multiple hats and taken on various lateral roles in the communications industry. I’ve been lucky that the companies I have worked for have understood the value of ‘Moving Sideways.’ Senior management with a recruitment approach of “Hire for attitude and aptitude, train for skill.” I’ve had bosses that have given me the space to explore sideways and apply my previous knowledge and experience into a new role. This kind of approach has enabled me to learn different facets of the industry and understand how they affect each other.  A valuable skill set for companies who want employees who can help clients navigate a world that’s exponentially becoming more interconnected and integrated.

As new industries emerge even faster than before, I think it’s even more important now to allow employees the ease of moving sideways. If not, it’s like saying that the first job you land sets your career destiny, which is incredibly limiting in a world that’s full of jobs that haven’t even been invented yet and roles you didn't realise you wanted until later in life.

So, the next time you’re feeling stuck, I urge you to consider moving sideways. Be relentless in your pursuit. Talk to your company. Don't give up hope or settle for the same job role in your next move.

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