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Mind the Gap

Lateral moves to win senior roles

Posted by Victoria Buckenham

You want to apply for senior roles in your company, but there is fierce competition. What makes your application stand out? We all know a successful senior leader who seems to have vast experience – how did they stand out at selection?

The answer is likely to be very simple; successful applicants have not only worked their way up the organisation in their area of specialism, but they have also probably taken a range of sideways, or lateral, moves too. These moves give an individual exposure to different business knowledge and experience that provide a competitive advantage at selection. This is because a key requirement at senior levels is to make decisions for the whole organisation – not just one small part of it.

Here are a few examples of real lateral moves taken by people to qualify for senior roles:
  • A senior Operations leader arranged to step into Finance to build their commercial knowledge which then enabled them to be appointed into a Head of Customer Services role
  • A senior HR Business Partner with ambitions to be HR Director took on a Head of Learning role to expand their knowledge of how developing and engaging individuals impacted the business
Senior careers involve acquiring all the jigsaw pieces of experience and knowledge required to make an informed contribution. Lateral moves such as those above fill in the missing jigsaw pieces, and show that the individual is ready for their next role. At the most senior levels, there is the expectation that everyone has a completed puzzle which creates a driving force at the top.

It’s therefore important to check yourself against key criteria (jigsaw pieces) to assess your next career step. Thinking of your end goal, will it benefit you to move up, or will it benefit you to broaden out? Consider what you’re missing from your puzzle.

Is your senior career jigsaw complete?

  • Have you worked successfully in both operations (where there is a clear chain of command and need for decisive action) AND Head Office roles (where there is a need to influence parallel departments without authority over them)?
  • Have you led successful teams in both types of role that have delivered great results – including after you have left?
  • Have you led through layers (managing managers) / in a matrix organisation / virtually / internationally?
  • Are you known for your people skills/leadership style – are you known for mentoring and assisting with talent initiatives?
  • How connected are you across the organisation? Do you have a good network that you frequently use to help with decisions and implementation?
  • Do you measure the impact of all of your initiatives and collect hard data on improvements?
  • Do you talk about costs, benefits, profit, loss, market share? Do you educate your team to always make sound financial arguments for their decisions?
  • Can you read a balance sheet and profit and loss sheet and spot what they tell you? Do you understand the mechanics of financial reporting within your organisation? Can you talk about the numbers and make sense of them for your team(s)/stakeholders?
  • Have you been a profit centre owner? Can you prove that you’ve increased the bottom line by reducing costs or increasing income?
Strategic Awareness
  • Do you understand your business’s strategy, competitors, blockers, opportunities?
  • Can you articulate the end-to-end workings of your organisation, i.e. do you know what every part does and to what end?
  • Have you spent time understanding external links – eg overseas with a parent company, with a key supplier, with key customers?
External Awareness
  • Have you dealt with the regulatory body for your sector, do you understand the principles of their work?
  • Do you have specialist knowledge in your area? Are you aware of external trends, and well-connected within your industry via forums, conferences and your network etc?
  • Have you dealt with external parties critical for your internal operation? Represented your organisation to the media? Been visible to financial markets?
Bearing all the above in mind, what are you aiming for? It’s not your next role, it’s the one afterwards. Once you’ve identified experience you lack, think about who could help you understand the priorities. Who gets involved in selecting people to that position? What makes a CV for that senior role truly stand out – the absolute ‘must have’ skills and experience? Also – can you talk to anyone who has taken this approach to their own career and been successful? They may be able to give you a lot of good tips and practical suggestions.

Drive your career by knowing the skills and knowledge you have, and those you lack. Prioritise the development of experience that will make your CV stand out for your desired career direction. Don’t be tempted to focus only on upwards moves.