Zigzag Your Way to the Top

Zigzag Your Way to the Top

Corporate Ladders


In response to the growing number of recent corporate downsizings many large companies have adopted an organizational structure that involves fewer layers and levels of corporate hierarchy than we saw during earlier decades. In order to adapt to these new developments it is important for corporate leaders to know how to leverage their careers in ways that embrace the changes without sacrificing the tangible rewards of success.

Within most companies the new structural architecture forms a zigzag. Whereas organizations used to rely primarily upon a conventional linear model from bottom to top, many companies are now incorporating lots of lateral positions of leadership responsibility. That means that sometimes the most value-adding promotion is a strategic lateral move and not necessarily a traditional vertical ascent up the ladder.

There is also a corresponding paradigm shift in terms of how high potentials view their next important career promotion. To some it may definitely mean that they are moving up a rung and gaining greater limelight exposure toward the top. But many are accomplishing their career objectives by cultivating their individual “promotionability factor.”

Many organizations perceive those who are willing to make lateral moves in order to add depth and breadth to the organization as their highest value potentials. But because most people want the prestige of top-floor exposure, lots of laterally mobile leaders are being rewarded with much more lucrative overall compensation packages.

So when you calculate your career success in today’s market it is critical that you don’t just focus on a prestigious title or higher base salary – but on your overall compensation and value-added benefits in terms of preparing yourself for even more lucrative lateral or vertical promotions. Just like in a chess game, the winning player often takes advantage of powerful zigzags across the board that competitors may not recognize as upwardly mobile maneuvers. But in the end those who are masters of navigational strategy catapult into prized positions and reap gigantic rewards.

Here are a few ideas to consider if you are asked to reshape your career destiny during times of change within the corporate hierarchy:

Embrace the New Zigzag Path to Success

As mentioned above, we find that in today’s companies – partly as an outcome of restructuring and downsizing – corporate hierarchies involve a lateral as well as a vertical ladder to success. These strategic lateral moves offer high potentials customized opportunities to acquire unique skills and experience, and that prepares them to be much more effective once they make an obvious vertical move. That’s why so many organizations are embracing this new model – because it produces more qualified leaders who have a great deal more to contribute both now and in the future.

So if you are offered an unusual lateral move this is never bad news. Generally speaking it means that you are being noticed and groomed for bigger responsibilities ahead – and that your path to success will have the kind of longevity that ensures a bright future for many years to come. I have taken many lateral moves during my own career, and they always led to upward advancement – because each lateral move significantly increased my value to the organization.

High potentials oftentimes don’t fully comprehend the underlying reasons for these lateral moves. But trust me – the more you know about the operations of your organization through hands-on experience, the more valuable you are and the more broad your perspective becomes. That kind of panoramic vision is what separates the truly extraordinary high-value leaders from the ordinary ones. When asked to accept another lateral move you are also being given a chance to prove that you are flexible and willing to learn new facets of the business. Who do you think they will call on when the next opportunity for a vertical promotion presents itself? You guessed it – the one with the most expansive and all-encompassing view of the organization.

Identifying High Value in the New Hierarchy

Many large Fortune 500 firms moving their high potentials up, down, and across the organizational lattice – following this new paradigm shift – reward those employees with a significant increase in their pay or bonus plans. Especially in these times of global business, leaders may be asked, for instance, to accept a lateral international assignment to broaden their scope. Anytime you are offered a new assignment that comes with an increase to the base salary or a larger bonus structure then you can be sure that you have been rewarded with career advancement.

Even if you get an offer for a lateral assignment without a pay bump or bonus it most likely indicates that your company values you enough to test you in a new position – because they are positioning you and preparing you for a move up the succession ladder. Today higher levels of management are extremely stressful, with many more direct reports. So businesses use lateral opportunities as a strategy to offer high potentials a way to learn a new system, hone international business skills, or work on their human relations or team development savvy before assuming the top jobs.

Today’s Companies Retain Hi-Po’s by Growing Them in Place

With fewer jobs available at the top today, organizations also want to retain their high potentials even if promotional opportunities are not available at the current time. As long as you are growing and expanding in your current position you are in “preparation mode.” They are getting you ready for something much bigger in the future. You must have faith and appreciate that your organization is still giving you career opportunities for personal growth – even if those are not conspicuous vertical jumps to the next level of management. They are strategically and intentionally investing in you, and that is one of the best signals a company can send to a high potential.

There are all types of promotional moves going on within large companies these days, although many employees will not recognize them because the paradigm is new and the process is evolving away from the old-fashioned and more familiar formula. Remain open to these new methods. Continue to seek out chances for professional growth, especially those that offer personal growth in the meantime. Patience is a virtue, especially right now. When the next level position becomes open, if you have prepared yourself to be ready to launch into it – by learning ways to deliver even greater value to your organization – you’ll be handed the reins at the top.

Sarah Hathorn, AICI CIP, CPBS is an internationally distinguished executive coach, corporate consultant, professional speaker, and the founding CEO of her own company, Illustra Consulting. A career acceleration and leadership presence expert, Hathorn created the innovative Predictable Promotion System™, a 10-step proprietary process she uses to coach managers aspiring to be directors, directors seeking vice presidential promotions, and VP’s eager to ascend to the C-suite. Hathorn served as a senior level executive for a Fortune 100 company for 25 years, and she has more than 30 years of experience mentoring high potentials for rapid career advancement and extraordinary success.

Illustra Consulting
Copyright © 2011, Sarah Hathorn, AICI CIP, CPBS

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