Vertical vs. Lateral Career Growth: What’s The Difference?
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There is no recipe for success or best approach to growing professionally. Career paths can take many different shapes and follow different courses. However, two distinct paths can be recognized when looking at how careers develop: vertical and lateral. Let’s look at what distinguishes them and what their main features are.
Vertical career growth
This form of career development involves getting promoted within your organization and moving up the ranks to roles with more responsibility, strategic projects, and better pay. Imagine a junior employee making their way to upper management through a series of promotions.
Lateral (horizontal) career growth
This form of career growth involves broadening your skillset in different fields and taking on new challenges or roles that may not necessarily come with a promotion or higher pay.
To better visualize this career growth path, imagine a developer whose primary responsibility is to work on code. In addition, the developer learns new programming languages and skills, becoming a pivotal part of the organization.
Pros and cons of vertical career growth
Some common characteristics of vertical career progression that make it appealing include the following:
- A clear path for advancement within an organization
- Opportunities to gain new skills and responsibilities
- Higher salaries and greater prestige
- A sense of accomplishment and progress
On the other hand, there are also potential drawbacks to be aware of when choosing this career path. Vertical growth may come with the following:
- Competitive and stressful work environments
- A suboptimal work-life balance
- Burnout or the sense of feeling stuck in a narrow path
- Limited exposure to different areas of the organization
Pros and cons of lateral career growth
Benefits of lateral career growth may include:
- Opportunities to explore different areas of an organization and gain a deeper understanding of processes
- Opportunities to develop new skills
- Opportunities to build a broader network within an organization
- Easier path to change careers or industries
- The chance to master a personal niche of expertise
Horizontal growth also comes with potential drawbacks, which may include the following:
- Less prestige or lower salaries compared to vertical growth
- The possibility of starting at a lower level in a different department or role
- The perception of lacking direction or ambition by some employers
- The need for additional training or education to develop new skills
While these pros and cons may apply in some situations, exceptions are also possible. Vertical career growth may not offer better salaries or negatively impact work-life balance, just as lateral growth may not come with decreased prestige or opportunities to fully customize your path.
How to decide which path is right for you
If you find the idea of climbing the corporate ladder, taking your career to new heights, and focusing more on management and strategy appealing, then a vertical career may be the right choice.
However, if you prefer hands-on work, the opportunity to rapidly change your course and tailor a professional role to your preferences. In that case, a lateral path might be your best choice.
According to LinkedIn, horizontal career moves are a proven booster of employee satisfaction and retention, with 75% of employees that made an internal move in the last two years likely to remain, versus the 56% of employees that did not experience any recent workplace changes, as described in their 2023 Workplace Learning Report.
Ultimately, it comes down to your individual preference, what best fits the career and roles you are working towards, and what feels right for you at a given moment. It’s always a good idea to be flexible and open to both forms of career development as they present themselves to you. This will increase the number of opportunities you can take advantage of.
Tips for maximizing your chosen path
Pursuing either a vertical or lateral career path requires a similar approach. Below we outline the keys to success.
Act with purpose
Setting yourself up for professional success is more complex than picking a growth style and letting things play out. Whatever your career growth preference is, it’s essential to have guidelines that will inform your choices and how you respond to different situations and opportunities.
For example, you may want to manage a team and not be too concerned about what industry you will work in. Alternatively, you may want to live as a digital nomad with less involvement in company politics and dynamics. Both choices will require you to work towards their success with a clear idea of your goals.
With a clear plan in mind, adapting to changes or unexpected events is equally important. From layoffs to a change in your life goals, from a new interest to a growth ceiling in your organization, new opportunities always open up, and not all of them may perfectly align with your plans.
The ability to honestly assess these opportunities and the adaptability to redesign your career path based on new information is an important skill to work on.
Know your environment
A big part of following a realistic and successful career development plan comes from being aware of your environment. This awareness shouldn’t be limited to your work, team, or organization but should be as broad as possible to help you understand the wider opportunities available.
Below are some questions you should regularly ask yourself to ensure you understand your situation and potential options:
Is growth easy and encouraged in your organization?
Is there high competition for your desired role?
Has management stayed the same in the last ten years?
Are there emerging markets you could apply your skills to?
Are there any new skills you could incorporate into your professional role?
How is the market doing?
Knowledge is the first step to building a successful and sustainable career. You can find more tips that will help you maximize your chosen growth path in our post on how to create growth opportunities in your career.
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