As a generalist, should you focus more on vertical or lateral career moves?
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There’s a hot topic on many generalists’ minds: what kind of moves you could you, or should you, be making? As generalists, we all know it can be tempting to focus solely on lateral career moves to explore new roles and gain a broad skill set.
However, it's important to keep in mind that there are critical career inflection points where vertical moves are necessary to gain management and leadership experience.
These moments can be the key to unlocking new opportunities and advancing your career (of course, there is an asterisk that says *do what is right for you based on your own goals).
Let’s dive in 👇️
Generalists are comfortable making lateral leaps
Generalists make more lateral moves than the average employee. And as long as you are doing it to explore new domains and learn things, this will help you build a well-rounded skill set.
Early in your career, try as many roles and types of work as you reasonably can. I love rotational programs because they expose you to different teams, functions, and ways of working. How do you know what you like until you try a few things?
When you choose to do ‘something new and different’ you often give up the vertical path of ‘more/bigger of the same thing with a promotion’. It’s the nature of the generalist journey.
Try not to get hung up on titles and promotions just because everyone else focuses on those things and/or it is the main way your company shows recognition. HR systems aren’t built for generalists (yet) so you have to carve your own path.
It can be easy to look around and feel like you aren’t progressing as fast as some of your peers who are on a strictly vertical track. But, I guarantee that a decade later your breadth of experience will help you as a generalist.
Two vertical moves unlock future opportunities
First, making the jump from individual contributor to manager is a crucial moment in a generalist's career. Leading a team and learning how to manage different types of people are critical to developing empathy when working with groups. It's a fully transferable skill set that will be invaluable in any future leadership roles. When you are considering manager-level roles in the future, you will be penalized for not having direct experience as a people leader.
Similarly, leading teams of teams is another crucial moment for a generalist to pursue. This is the access card to more senior leadership roles in the future. If you can lead and inspire groups of people, especially cross-functional groups, you will thrive as a general manager. Conversely, if you have not managed a team of teams, your attractiveness as a candidate will be limited down the road.
It is typically easier to make these moves with people who know and trust you. When it makes sense, stay in an organization or role that will allow you to grow vertically into one of these leadership positions.
If you pursue a management vertical jump in a new organization, make sure you have a strong support structure in place (community, coaches, mentors, & other people you trust) to guide you through the change curve.
Bring your breadth and passion to any role
As you make vertical or horizontal career moves, keep in mind the special talents you bring to any organization or problem. These underlying skills make you a valuable team member and are often what get you out of bed in the morning.
For example, if you are a "culture builder and people leader", you can focus on those areas and make meaningful improvements in any role, even if it's not a perfect fit.
So to sum up, as a generalist, you should focus on both vertical and lateral career moves at different points in your career. While it's important to explore new roles and gain a broad skill set, it's equally important to stay aware of critical career inflection points and pursue management and leadership experience when the opportunity arises. By applying your unique talents to any role you take on, you can make meaningful contributions and advance your career as a generalist.
The curvilinear path by Matthew Carlson
“Sweat the Details” and Other Commandments for Mapping Out a Career in Product - First Round Capital
Friendly reminder: if you're stuck on a problem, go for a two-mile walk.
About the author: Kathryn Montbriand spent a decade championing culture change at a Fortune 500 company. She pioneered a first-of-its-kind team of ‘Culturists’ that focused on employee engagement and creating authentic connections in the workplace. She used that same spirit of positive disruption to create Montbriand Services which provides Fractional Chief of Staff support, and Lived and Loved which enables people to access their stories in an innovative way.