lateral moves

Smart career move, or dead-end job? How to tell the difference

March 6, 2014: 12:09 PM ET

A lateral job change can put you on a better path, or it can lead nowhere. If you're offered a step sideways, here's what to ask beforehand.

Chess

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I started with this company right out of college four years ago, after doing a summer internship here, and so far everything's going great. Now, I've been offered a job that I'm wondering whether to take, and I could use some advice. It would be a lateral move, into the second-in-command spot in a relatively new division, rather than a promotion, and it seems like an interesting opportunity to expand my experience and my network.

Still, I can't help wondering if the job might be a dead end, since it takes me off the usual career path that people in senior management have followed here. How do you tell the difference between a lateral move that will lead upward eventually and one that probably won't? I do have a choice about whether to do this or stay where I am (for now), and our division head has given me two weeks to decide. -- Patty in Pittsburgh

Dear P.P.: With companies running so much leaner now than before the recession, vanishing layers of management have made promotions hard to come by, so plenty of people are finding themselves in your shoes. Often, that's fine. "Lateral moves can be great for all kinds of reasons, especially if they give you a chance to gain new experience that's important to your company," says Lois Frankel, CEO of Corporate Coaching International, a Pasadena, Calif.-based executive development firm that numbers Disney (DIS), Procter & Gamble (PG), and Lockheed Martin (LMT) among its many Fortune 500 clients.

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Unfortunately, Frankel has also coached people who took a step sideways only to find that their careers had stalled out. "Never take any job offer without checking it out first," she says. "The only way to tell whether a lateral move leads to a dead end is to gather lots of information beforehand about the situation you'd be stepping into."

Since you say the division where you'd be going to is relatively new, it may not have been part of the company when the current crop of senior managers was on its way up, so their career path doesn't tell you much. To steer clear of a possible corporate backwater, Frankel suggests asking the following questions:

1. How are lateral moves in general regarded where you work? At some companies, working in several different business units, including taking on an international assignment or two, is equivalent to "getting your ticket punched," Frankel notes. "It's considered necessary for future senior managers." At other firms, however, not so much. Take a look at the stars at your own organization. Are they making, or have they made, moves similar to the one you're weighing now, or only upward ones?

2. What has happened to the person(s) who had the job before? If you ask around and find out that he or she is being promoted, or is moving to some other interesting job in-house, great. But if your predecessor -- or, worse, the past several -- quit or was fired, clearly that's a sign of trouble ahead. "Beware of any job where there has been a lot of 'churn,'" Frankel says. Sometimes the problem is the boss you'd be working for, which brings us to ...

3. Will you be working for someone who's open to your ideas? Frankel recently coached a manager who had accepted a newly created position, and she spent lots of time talking to other people in the company about what they needed from her. Her boss, however, had other ideas. "He wanted her at her desk all the time, and he was a total micromanager," Frankel says. "He made it impossible for her to define the role and do what was needed." She didn't last long and, if your new boss isn't interested in the skills, talents, and ideas you bring to the job, neither will you.

4. How is the business doing financially? In her new book, a revised and updated edition of Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office, Frankel tells a cautionary tale of a young female manager who was offered a lateral move to a remote, struggling division.

Eager to prove she could turn things around, the manager accepted the job -- only to find out a few months later that the business was on the auction block. When it was sold, she was, too, "and ended up working for a much smaller, less prestigious company, on top of losing her tenure with the former parent, which affected her pension," Frankel recalls. "If only she had asked the person who had that job before her, she would have found out he was leaving because he knew what was coming, and he wanted to avoid it."

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5. Is the job in an area that's growing, or one that's obsolescing? Being second-in-command of a division that's strategically important to your company, and helping run one that is the modern-day equivalent of the buggy-whip business, are two entirely different things. So before you say yes, take a hard look at which one it is.

"These days, the pace of change is so rapid that, no matter what industry you're in, you have to be able to step back from the day-to-day and look at the big picture," Frankel notes. If the role you're considering is central to your company's future plans, it could turn out to be a terrific move. If not, set a time limit on how long you're willing to stay in it -- Frankel suggests 12 to 18 months -- and, just to be on the safe side, ask to get that in writing.

Good luck.

Talkback: If you've made a lateral move lately, how did you decide whether it made sense for you? How has it turned out? Leave a comment below.

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