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Lateral vs. vertical career moves

Young professional standing confidently with arms crossed in meeting room

At a glance

  • Horizontal career growth is moving to another department, a new role within your department or a similar position at a different company.
  • Vertical career growth means moving up in your company or field with a higher role than your current one.
  • Explore free job resources, including resumé templates and guides, with University of Phoenix.

Many college students often focus on getting hired after they graduate, but it’s important not to forget the big picture. What does your ideal career path look like in the period after you graduate? Where do you see yourself after five or 10 years of working full time? There are multiple elements to a career growth plan, but most career changes fall into two categories: horizontal and vertical career growth.

Both horizontal and vertical career growth can help you expand your options and experiences, and it’s up to you to decide which options provide the career ladder you want. Let’s talk more about the differences between these two options to build into your career development plan.

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What are horizontal career moves?

Many people associate career growth with climbing the corporate ladder. They think growth means getting promoted to their boss’s level and then moving up from there. However, growth could also mean moving to another department, a new role within your department or a similar position at a different company. This is what’s known as a horizontal career move.

An employee in social media marketing might, for example, apply for a job in media buying or public relations within the same company. This would allow them to apply some of their same general competencies while learning a new skill set in a role they might enjoy a little more.

Similarly, an employee might leave a small company and work for a large enterprise with the same job title. By working for a different firm and potentially in a different industry, the employee would gain broader expertise.

Benefits of horizontal career moves

There are several reasons to pursue horizontal career moves — especially when you are starting out in your career. Here are a few reasons why these moves may be more valuable to you:

  • Learn new skills — Gain experience working with different teams and building your experience within the company.
  • Find a job you love — By exploring different positions, you take steps to find a career path you are passionate about.
  • Become a better job candidate — You can apply to a more diverse range of job postings by growing your skills.
  • Prepare for vertical moves — Learning about the different aspects of a department is key if you hope to lead within the company someday.

Horizontal moves can also potentially increase your value within an organization. They show that you are committed to staying with a company and are open to job changes as needed.

Disadvantages of horizontal career moves

While a horizontal move has many benefits, there are also potential drawbacks. One issue may be pay. A horizontal change might not bring the pay increase that taking a position higher up the organizational chart would. However, if you consider a horizontal move an investment in your future, you could potentially see pay increases as your career grows.

How to implement a horizontal career path

Horizontal career moves require you to know where you want to go. You also need to prove to others that you have the skills for the job — or the willingness to build them. Here are a few steps to take:

  • Look at internal job boards — Check for postings of open positions you are interested in.
  • See which skills the job requires — Look for ways to build your skills or transfer the knowledge you have.
  • Talk to people within your organization — Let them know you are interested in what they do. Consider shadowing them for a day if you have the opportunity.

You can also talk to your manager about other opportunities within the company. This shows your willingness to be transparent about your career growth. Your boss might be able to help you set priorities and provide training opportunities or recommend you for the new position.

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What are vertical career moves?

A vertical move might keep you in the same department but increase your standing within the organizational chart. For example, an employee might become a team leader if they show promise within the organization. From there, they could become a junior manager, then a senior manager and beyond.

Vertical career moves are often considered desirable but aren’t for everyone. Know the pros and cons of this move before you accept a new position.

Benefits of vertical career moves

One of the main benefits of a vertical move is the pay. In most cases, the higher you are on the organizational chart, the more money you make.

You also enjoy more decision-making abilities, a privilege born from experience and expertise. In addition to work experience (including, potentially, a few horizontal career moves), people gain such knowledge through education. Many people seek out bachelor’s and master’s degrees (often business degrees) to pursue vertical career growth.

Disadvantages of vertical career moves

A vertical move is often considered a reward for employees who show promise within companies. However, there are some drawbacks. Here are a few reasons why you might not accept a vertical career move:

  • You aren’t ready — You might need more experience and workplace skills before you can successfully step into the role.
  • The promotion changes your day-to-day tasks — Some people don’t want to become leaders because it means they would spend less time working with customers or taking on projects.
  • You don’t want to stay on your career path — Your dream job might be in another field, which means you don’t want to advance in this one.

It can be hard to tell your boss you aren’t ready for or interested in a vertical career move. Try approaching the conversation by explaining your career goals and concerns and ask for guidance on how to achieve them within the company.

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How to implement a vertical career path

You should have options if you want to pursue a vertical career change. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for your boss to leave to fill their position. For example, you can look to see if other companies are interested in hiring you. You can also talk to your manager and discuss your desire to move up. They might provide projects and opportunities for you to grow and get noticed by senior leadership.

Which career move is best for you?

Your career path is your own, which means it’s OK if you might benefit from a lateral versus vertical move at this time. Follow the four stages of career planning to determine what is right for you. Here are some questions to guide you:

  • Are you happy in your current field?
  • Do you like the company you work for?
  • Do you see yourself stepping into your boss’s role or other leadership roles?
  • Which skills do you desire?
  • What changes in your industry or field excite you?
  • What is your dream job and what does it take to achieve it?

One of the best ways to make a clear-headed decision on horizontal versus vertical growth is to think about your goals — not the expectations of others. Don’t compare yourself to your peers, co-workers or friends. Do what is right for you alone. This could mean staying within the company but changing departments or pursuing a master’s degree to prepare for vertical growth. Investing in yourself today will guide you to the right growth in the future.


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