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When a better job looks worse on paper

Angela Ahrendts (Getty)

Angela Ahrendts (Getty)

Angela Ahrendts was at the top of the ladder at luxury British retailer Burberry Group plc when she announced her decision to leave the role of chief executive officer to take the post of senior vice president of retail and online at consumer electronics giant Apple Inc.

News of the move — a CEO jumping to a lesser position, albeit at one of the world’s most coveted companies — made headlines around the world. Some people perceived it as smart, even advantageous, while others considered it highly unusual.

“It was a move down in terms of title, but it is also a move into a much larger organisation with the potential to have greater impact,” said Matthew Bidwell, assistant professor of management at The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Ahrendts is one of many professionals who has sought to expand her professional expertise with a move that, on the outside, appears to be a step down. Yet it is important to avoid judging job moves upon titles alone, warn many management experts.  Particularly at the mid-to-upper levels of management, “a change in title is not always your best indication of (what) is happening,” said Cameron McRae, president of McRae Inc, a career transition and human resources consultancy based in Calgary, Canada.

For many professionals, a so-called lateral move (moving from a similar position and level to another one that is similar), can be highly strategic, added McRae. These sideways, or even lesser roles, can allow employees to stay abreast of new technology and fresh ways of conducting business. 

For those considering a move, focus on these factors before ruling out a job purely on the basis of a lesser title or job prestige: your individual career path, prior jobs, future potential, the companies you want to work for and the health of the industry in which you work. It is also important to consider your quality of life, including commutes and length of workdays. Once you have evaluated the job and your goals, you can better answer the question: is that bigger title really a step up — or is that lesser role really a big leap forward?

Here’s how:

Does this align with the career trajectory you have envisioned?

Professionals these days are largely in charge of the direction and scope of their careers. Company idylls and structure no longer fully dictate how people move around. That’s why it’s important to ask whether an organisation is “on-brand with your brand and aspirations”,  said Jane Anderson, an executive personal branding and career expert based in Brisbane, Australia.

You need to think at least a few steps ahead of the move you are considering and always keep your long-term career goal in mind, McRae said. If your goal is to reach the top ranks of your new or current employer, for instance, analyse the company mechanics and paths of the people now in the positions you have your sights set on.

“In some large-sized multinational corporations lateral moves are a ‘must’ to be able to get to the executive-level positions,” said Monika Hamori, human resource management professor at IE Business School in Madrid.

Next, consider the challenges and responsibilities of the role and determine whether taking them on will lead to both professional growth and offer opportunities for you to help the company grow and improve. Sometimes, a yes to those questions make what seems like a lateral or step-down move worthwhile.

“Apple will present new challenges for Ahrendts,” for instance, Hamori said. “Just as she did at Burberry a few years ago…  she’ll have to turn around a retail function that currently seems to be far from thriving.”

How will others perceive this move? 

While you shouldn’t let what others think of you or your career choices rule your decision-making, taking the perspective of an outsider can give you an important vantage point to assess whether a particular move is as strategic as you think.

“Will a recruiter looking at your resume understand why you made the move across, or can you explain it easily?” said Anderson.

Or, imagine how your colleagues or bosses will read an internal memo about your sideways move, McRae suggested. “Making a lateral move that is not strategic can be perceived by those around you as an indication you could not handle your previous role,” he said. That perception later could prove detrimental to your career at the company or even within the industry.

Who will be surrounding you?

Consider who might be mentoring or grooming you in the new post. They will be the ones to help and enable your career growth.

Also ask yourself whether the switch presents more opportunities to network and expand your contacts, said Abby Locke, an executive brand strategist and master resume writer in Washington DC. If doing so will help you get to the next job after the one you’re considering — the one that puts you well on your way to your bigger career goal — that alone can make a sideways move a good idea.

Dilip Saraf, a top-ranked career coach by networking site LinkedIn, said a new job that can position you in your field or in the public eye could be worth considering, too.

“This can elevate your profile without getting a promotion,” he said.

Is this company, industry or division on the way up?

Hitching your career to something that is expanding, progressing or developing can make a lateral move well worth it. Take a step back to see what is happening in the bigger picture at your firm and in the industry — and then determine how you figure into it.

“If your company is moving to exploit rapidly a new market opportunity and you see high growth for yourself, you can easily move ahead quickly beyond what may otherwise be possible where you currently are,” Saraf said.

Joining a company that is an industry leader, as Ahrendts did with Apple, is similarly advantageous, according to Hamori. “Moves to much larger corporations and industry leaders are ‘good’ lateral moves,” Hamori said. “In fact, they are so good that you may even consider them a promotion. An increase in corporate size implies that your responsibilities increase.”

 How could this change your quality of life?

Take stock of the intangible benefits and drawbacks, even those that might seem small.  “Will you save money on commuting costs and have a better work-life balance?” Locke asked.

Saraf encourages people to compare quality-of-life factors with their personal values and priorities, such time spent with family, or an opportunity to experience a new country or culture. “(The change) can pay off long-term in other ways.”

“In these job and career transitions what matters is what you get to do, how big a canvas you get, and what impact you leave behind,” Saraf said.

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