Scientists have observed that geese flying in a V formation don’t have established roles but actually change places hundreds of times, sharing the workload by taking on different jobs. This practice allows geese to conserve energy and increases the chance that more birds will make it to their destination — in some migratory flights, the mortality rate is 30% — thus benefitting the whole flock.

The nonprofit sector can learn a lot from geese.

In fact, many nonprofits are doing so, encouraging staff to make shifts in their positions, beyond the traditional “moving up the ladder” moves. And because the benefits of doing so are striking for both the individual and even more so the organization, we thought we would examine what’s involved in lateral moves.

What’s a lateral move?

“Gone are the days when someone stayed in the same role for 40 years,” says Veronica Utton, managing director of human resources management firm V. Utton & Associates.

At the same time, the charitable sector tends to have a fairly flat hierarchical structure – with more than half of nonprofits having fewer than five employees — which makes the traditional career path of “climbing the corporate ladder” not always a viable option. This tends to mean, as Utton says, “some organizations are training grounds and they know it.”

Karen Dickenson Smith, director of specialized family supports, Family Services of Greater Vancouver adds, “The reality is that if someone needs a change and they perceive they can’t get that within their organization, they will look elsewhere.”

But this doesn’t have to be so, thanks to lateral moves. Utton points to the public sector as having done this well. “People often have long careers within the public sector because they have the opportunity to move from one portfolio to another, such as social services to corrections.”

In this definition, a lateral move is a shift to a role that is not a step up the traditional career ladder but rather a sideways move to a different role within the same organization.

What does this look like?

Most organizations have multiple distinct jobs even in small organizations where those jobs are held by very few people. A lateral move offers an employee an opportunity to try out or permanently move to a new role.

This can be done in a wide variety of ways. Family Services of Greater Vancouver is a large and diverse nonprofit with more than 90 programs. While this makes them well suited for lateral moves, there is much about the way they approach this that could be adopted even by very small charities. Dickenson Smith explains, “This could be as short and simple as attending a different department’s meeting to learn about the content area being discussed, or job shadowing someone in a different role for a day to understand what’s involved in their work.” The organization also has found “real learning and value in more formal lateral moves,” such as staff shifting from one department to a very different one.

In her previous work in the nonprofit sector, Utton has seen administrative staff move, even temporarily, to work in frontline roles “to get a broader perspective of what it takes to develop and deliver programs.”

Sometimes, the lateral move doesn’t even involve an actual move. Chantal Rackley, career advisor/ facilitator, WorkBC Employment Services Centre – North Shore, YWCA Metro Vancouver has seen colleagues do this by reaching out for mentorship from leaders in different departments.

Why would someone want to make a lateral move?

There are a wide variety of reasons a lateral move may appeal to an employee. Rackley says, “Often people start working in a nonprofit because they like the values and missions of the organization, but the position may not be the role or area they were educated in. Often when we see those lateral moves, it’s been to honour a skillset or passion that has been put aside temporarily as people get their foot in the door.”

Other times, an employee wants a change but doesn’t necessarily want someone reporting to them. A lateral move can be a stimulating alternative to moving up into management, says Rackley, who adds that making such a move can expand a person’s professional network, allow them to learn new skills and enhance existing skills, without adding responsibilities they don’t want.

A change can also be as good as a rest, suggests Dickenson Smith, who says that a lateral move can also be a healthy shift for someone beginning to feel burnout. This can be especially useful for people who work in direct service roles, says Utton, especially with emotionally challenging populations. A deliberate plan to move to a less intense role can sometimes prevent burnout and compassion fatigue. Sometimes a lateral move can allow for greater work-life balance, suggests Dickenson Smith, citing employees who made a lateral move within the organization in part to work in a location closer to their home.

While no one suggests that a lateral move is a good way to deal with interpersonal conflict, Rackley admits that sometimes a lateral move can be a terrific way to find a better fit within an organization. “Sometimes people love the organization and share its values, but don’t find a solid fit within a team. Choosing to leave an organization because of a lack of fit with a team is a big scary step. Moving to a different area within the organization is a much less stressful move.”

A lateral move can also help with career development in the future, helping an employee become more valuable, both to their own organization and to other organizations because of the breadth of their skills and experience. This is true for the VP of quality assurance at Family Services of Greater Vancouver, Jessica Denholm, who has been with the organization for 25 years, starting as a mobile detox worker and shifting through a wide variety of positions, all of which helped her prepare for her current role.

Why should organizations (generally) LOVE this?

“There are so many benefits to encouraging employees to make lateral moves,” says Dickenson Smith. “You have a stronger, more resilient learning organization. There is benefit to the organization, clients, employees and teams. It encourages retention, prevents burnout, enhances creative thinking and diversity.”

Utton agrees, observing that the people drawn to lateral moves are often high potential performers, employees you want to keep and to keep challenged. She suggests that initiating conversations about making internal moves is a way of allowing those high performers to know that management is interested in them in the long run, and also interested in keeping them challenged — which speaks to the key issues of engagement and retention.

Rackley says, “When someone is interested in making a move, what they are really saying is they love the organization and want to stay but are looking for different responsibilities. Honour that loyalty and recognize that they need more of a challenge to stay motivated.”

Utton notes that while cross-training within departments is a common practice, cross-training across departments makes an organization far more resilient. “When an organization makes deliberate and conscious efforts to develop people in multiple roles, they give themselves options. People die, get sick or circumstances change so they may leave even if they thought they would be there for a longer period of time. This allows an organization to set itself up so it has options.” She notes that the practice of cultivating homegrown talent is widely practiced among large corporations, to develop a talent pool of people who can be called on when there is a sudden vacancy or even an interim shift.

Lateral moves also offer greater understanding. Of her former colleagues in a nonprofit, Utton says, “Often it was a good eye-opener for people who would sit at head office and dream up ideas. When we said ‘why don’t you shadow someone in the field and see how realistic it is,’ they would come back with greater understanding of what it actually took and could refine programs accordingly.”

Similarly, Utton suggests that lateral moves allow for “cross-pollination” on teams, giving them an injection of fresh perspective. She adds, “As an added bonus, unlike bringing someone in from outside, an internal shift means the person knows the organization and shares its vision, but has a different constellation of experience.”

Why not do this?

While everyone we talked to said that the benefits of lateral moves far outweigh the downside, there are some circumstances in which this kind of move is not ideal. Dickenson Smith admits that it does take a bit more “work, thought, time and courage” to have such conversations with staff. She adds that not all proposed lateral moves work for everyone involved. “An organization may be open to the idea generally but a particular idea might not work.”

Utton says, “There is a level of disruption that happens when you have a team with a certain dynamic and then bring in someone else in. It takes time for people to gel as team and to regain momentum. Sometimes a program or project is at a place where that temporary disruption can be detrimental to end results, so it isn’t a good time to make that move.”

Lateral moves can be more challenging in smaller organizations that are already over-stretched, says Utton. There can also be challenges around compensation — especially when a new role might be associated with less pay.

A lateral move might not help an employee meet their career goals or reflect their competencies well. If an employee’s goal is to work in management, a lateral move might not lead them as directly to their goals. Others might have an interest in a role that doesn’t suit them — Utton suggests that job shadowing can be a good way to actually see a role in action before moving into it.

How to set up lateral moves?

On the organizational side, Dickenson Smith says that while lateral moves are often a great idea, they do have to align with an organization’s operations. She encourages managers to create a safe space for conversations about lateral moves, including developing policies that promote such opportunities, but adds, “The real magic happens in one-on-one conversations between employees and supervisors. Supervisors need to watch employees for signs of restlessness, stagnation, and burnout, and to consider a lateral move as a solution.” Utton agrees, suggesting that this can be part of a regular check-in with employees.

Organizations often find that setting up lateral moves work well when someone is going on a scheduled leave. Utton says, “This is an occasion you have to plan around anyway, and you can use this as an opportunity for conversation about how roles might shift during someone’s leave.”

On the employee side, several of the people we talked with advised that employees should not lead with, “I’m bored,” when proposing a lateral move. Instead, the following approaches are helpful:

  • Dickenson Smith encourages employees to begin by “being really thoughtful about your interests, goals, strengths and development areas, curiosities. Do some research on what you might be interested in.”
  • Talk with people who have made such moves, or other more informal changes, especially within your organization.
  • If you think a lateral move or other change would be beneficial, initiate that conversation with your supervisor. Dickenson Smith says, “They can’t always guess what you might like and usually appreciate when people take initiative and voice interest in a change.”
  • Have a clear structure in mind, says Rackley. “Be as precise as you can be about the why, the who, the what of your proposal.
  • If there is no current opportunity for a move, Rackley suggests proposing a mentorship opportunity with someone in a different role.

“People are often afraid to have these conversations, but they don’t have to be positioned as lack of commitment,” says Utton. “As leaders, we have to recognize that individuals bring their careers with them wherever they go and figure out how we can help them be the best they can be while they are with us.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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