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Why a horizontal move may be the best career decision of your life

4 Sep 2019

When it comes to career plans, most of us naturally focus our attention on the next step. But what about the step after the next step? Hays’ Karen Young explains why a lateral move could actually be a huge benefit to your career.

Many people look blank when asked where they want to be in five years’ time. Others may mumble an answer, hazard a guess, say they don’t know, or even that they haven’t thought that far ahead yet.

If this sounds familiar, then perhaps it’s time to think about where you want to be in two, three, four or even five jobs’ time. Do you want to be working at a higher level doing what you do now, or do you have a goal to work in a completely different sector?

You need to start doing some preparation work now to ensure you get to where you want to be. A lot of that work will involve developing your skills – some of which you probably don’t even realise you need.

So in this piece, I want to talk about the importance of looking ahead in your career and proactively making the right upskilling decisions – right now – to help get you to where you want to be in the future.

Your three buckets of skills

As I’ve alluded already, a big part of looking ahead and planning your future career success is becoming more conscious and aware of your current and future skills.

Whenever I’m speaking at conferences or giving advice to people who are currently struggling to progress with their own career plans, I like to use what I call the ‘bucket story’.

This is a simple and memorable way of helping you to visualise the three sets, or buckets, of different skill types that you need to nurture and develop, and how each of these buckets will become sometimes more or sometimes less important at different stages of your career.

To get started, picture a bucket. Now, imagine three of them. What are they for and what do they contain? Hopefully, you thought about liquid or water – so now imagine that the water inside each bucket represents a different set of skills. As your career changes, you’ll need to ensure there is more water in some buckets and less in others.

Now, I’ll explain a little more about what each essential bucket contains.

Bucket 1: Your technical skills

When you start out in your career, you are very much learning your trade. The focus in terms of skills development will therefore be on building your technical skills and expertise. At this stage, you are still in the process of becoming an expert, so your technical skills bucket should be brimming with water.

For instance, if you were a project assistant, you would be providing administrative support to the project managers you aspire to become while getting accustomed to how to effectively coordinate resources, people and budgets.

Bucket 2: Your project/niche skills

As your career progresses, moving away from the day-to-day tasks and on to managing and directing others to do them, your skillset will subsequently need to develop. And, as businesses go through unprecedented technological and cultural change, it’s also likely that you will be pulled onto separate multi-department projects. This will involve learning the key skills required to work in different areas of the business, with different teams composed of a mixture of capabilities.

This gives you the opportunity to become involved with projects outside of your day job, which in turn will help you to broaden a specific skillset that you otherwise might not have the opportunity to develop.

And the impact upon your project/niche bucket? You’ll need to top up your water level to accommodate these additional duties and recognise that when doing a project role, the water level in the technical day-to-day bucket will likely reduce, as none of us can do everything at once.

Bucket 3: Your competencies

As you transition further into positions of management and leadership, you will naturally become less reliant on your technical skills instead of depending more on competencies such as influencing, negotiation, leading, planning and developing strategies.

Therefore, the water in your technical skills bucket will decrease as you move even further away from the day-to-day of doing your job and spend more time reviewing.

However, this can become something of a balancing, or water-carrying, act. After all, it’s crucial that you keep some water in your technical skills bucket and keep it topped up as you progress – as it is important that you retain the ability to review and challenge work in an expert way to maintain credibility with your team and colleagues. Don’t allow it to become empty but you just don’t need to do the technical skills every single day.

So, that’s the essence of my ‘bucket story’. As you move from job to job and progress within an organisation, the water level within each of these three buckets will be in constant change. If you don’t consciously keep attending to the levels of your three buckets, you may find it difficult to move your career in the direction you want to take it.

How a horizontal career move could help you

As I stated in the introduction, I always advise candidates to continually anticipate the job in which they’d like to be in two or more career moves. Many candidates don’t look far ahead enough, preferring to focus on the job they have now and the one they want next – without putting the right amount of focus on where the next job could take them in the future.

The next step is to proactively tackle these skills gaps now, to ensure your employability in the future – and here’s how a horizontal career move can help you to do so.

What is a horizontal career move?

A horizontal career move is made when a person moves sideways from one job to another, to gain the skills, experience and knowledge required to progress their upwards career path in the future. Normally, people move through jobs vertically, seeking a new title, status and a higher income. And while a vertical move certainly comes with perks, it is the expanded skill set and experience that a one-off horizontal career move can bring you that could help you to achieve more vertical career moves in the future.

Take, for instance, the case of a finance manager who has developed a strong skillset in management accounting and calculating profit and loss statements. However, the job that person aspires to be in is a finance director. Having looked at the typical job specifications for this level and seniority of the role, this finance manager soon realises that they lack the relevant technical skills needed in preparing statutory accounts and managing the balance sheet.

In order to get this experience, they establish that they need to move across into a more technical financial accounting role, which is a horizontal move. Their plan is to do the job for 12 to 18 months so that they can proactively balance out their skills buckets and set themselves up for that future move. These are often good moves to make internally before considering a future external move, where the opportunity is available, but sometimes have to be made externally if the right job does not exist.

‘If you have identified a skills gap that is holding you back or could prevent you from reaching your future career ambitions, you need to proactively tackle this yourself’

In this example, the candidate hopes to develop the broader skillset required to become a finance director, by learning more technical skills around the preparation of balance sheets. Therefore, it is a horizontal career move that would enable them to achieve their long-term career ambitions.

Without taking this sideways route, they would neglect the opportunity to upskill now in the areas in which they foresee they would be lacking in the future. In this scenario, it would be hard for them to get to the level they aspire to work at if they do not develop these additional skills.

And how does this apply to you? If you don’t invest the time to become more self-aware of the skills you may be lacking to achieve your future career ambitions and then, crucially, go about proactively upskilling yourself and pursue the experiences that you need to help fill your skills gaps, you may find it harder to achieve everything you hope for.

How to make a horizontal career move

Ultimately, you and only you are responsible for your own career path. If you have identified a skills gap that is holding you back or could prevent you from reaching your future career ambitions, you need to proactively tackle this yourself. Neither your current boss nor your employer will do it for you. It is entirely up to you to propel yourself down the right path and enhance your career the way you envision – you are in the driving seat.

Your first step should be to explore the options available at your current employer. For instance, there could be the possibility of a secondment, or even a job shadowing someone with the skillset you require. Plus, it’s much more likely that you can top up a specific technical skill by making an internal horizontal move, as opposed to applying for an external job.

However, when you have identified the skills gaps you need to fill, this is where your boss may be able to help. While they can’t do the work for you, their experience could be key to helping you to plan the right path and learn the required skills to get to the job you aspire to. Be open about where you think you need to develop and explain how you’ve come to this conclusion, as well as why and how you hope to fill your skills gaps. Ask them for their support and guidance, or alternatively speak to a recruiter who could also help to detail how you can acquire the skills you need to progress.

I hope I’ve outlined the importance of looking to the future when it comes to your career, and not just being consumed with the here and now. By taking the approach of thinking two or more jobs ahead, you’ll find it so much easier to establish where your skills gaps lie – and how you can develop these required skills and succeed in your long-term career ambitions. Good luck!

By Karen Young

Karen Young is the director of Hays UK.

A version of this article appeared on Hays’ Viewpoint Blog.

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