One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

— February 21, 2019

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Have you reached a stale point in your career and found yourself lost on what to do next? Alternatively, have you considered a promotion and found it’s just not a role you want to accept?

Perhaps you’ve hit a wall on the corporate ladder. There is no apparent way around or over it, and you’re left wondering what to do next. This exact situation is very common for millions of young adults and it was the situation I found myself in not too long ago.

After acknowledging that I was stuck, I conducted some serious soul-searching and research. The solution I arrived at was uncomfortable at first – changing my professional trajectory required radical personal growth. This answer was not an easy path forward, because it meant a downward and horizontal move was necessary in order to make a much brighter professional future possible.

Stopping the Train

Downward and horizontal career moves may be necessary to achieve personal and professional growth, long term stability, future opportunities, and the right work-life balance for you.

In my previous career as a Fitness Manager for a Health & Fitness organization, I found myself eventually asking all those questions above. I decided to take control of my personal growth, break free from stagnation and explore an uncapped future in professional high-tech sales.

The entry-level role for this career path is commonly understood to be a Sales Development Representative position. This was a lower-paying position (initially) than the Fitness Manager role I held, but it offered me a real opportunity for strong growth and a vastly higher financial ceiling in the future.

This decision wasn’t one I entered in to lightly. My personal path “up the chain” in the fitness industry required long hours, self-sacrifice and some thankless jobs. In the course of my ascendance, I rose from Housekeeper, to Front Desk Operations, to Fitness Consultant, to Operations Manager, to Certified Trainer before reaching Fitness Manager.

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

To go with all that hard work, I had also earned a number of professional certifications. Still, I felt I had hit a ceiling and was left constantly wondering what’s next? The next promotion, which might be years away, would have me working a lot more than the already 10+ hour days I was spending at the organization and still only provide incremental gains in my compensation. My “job train” was slowly moving forward (I guess), but I didn’t like the direction it was headed.

This wasn’t a future I could bank on or see myself thriving in, so I decided to make a change. A job in high-tech sales, where compensation is directly based on personal performance, immediately captured my attention. In professional sales, it was immediately apparent I could achieve strong compensation based on my own production, and work-life balance would be within my own control.

By jumping on to a totally different career track, I re-shaped my personal and professional growth goals and altered my future for the better.

What is Horizontal and Vertical Growth?

Vertical (or positional) career growth is what we have all been ingrained with as the correct and socially recognizable way to measure the success of a career. You move higher and higher up the corporate ladder, one rung at a time, theoretically as the years move forward.

Horizontal (or personal) career growth is when you might move to a different department, or even to a different company, and learn a new set of skills that are completely unrelated to your current role. This might take the form of a new role with vastly different responsibilities within the same company, or it may mean a completely different career and industry altogether.

Why Move Horizontally (or even Downward) and Risk Your Niche?

The reasons for a “radical” move like this are often compelling when you peel back the onion. First (and perhaps foremost), you are making yourself more marketable because you will be learning an entirely new skill set. No longer will you be stuck in a rut or mired in the same routine. You will be challenged with a new set of tasks and job responsibilities to master. There’s no better way to grow than to be challenged like this.

Additionally, you will avoid being pigeonholed or plateauing. The Society for Human Resource Management states:

“A career plateau occurs when employees reach a level in an organization in which they are either perceived to have reached their limit of progression or the organization does not provide opportunities for future advancement.”

In order to progress, another company may be your best choice or you may find an option for a horizontal move within your current company.

An article in Forbes describes horizontal advancement as the opening of doors on the “floor you are already on” instead of the route of taking an elevator upward. Horizontal movement could also be thought of as adding ‘value’ to your current job and requiring mastery of self instead of a mastery of others, according to the piece.

In taking on a new role, you will be adding new skill sets (personal growth) to your resume, you won’t hit a ceiling and you should be able to avoid stunting your personal career growth. This piece on The Muse states that horizontal moves “can actually give you more marketability in the long run. By understanding more aspects of the company as a whole, and how different departments fit together, you’ll likely be better suited for management or executive positions down the road.”

Remember, you’re not alone in moving careers. Frequent employment changes are becoming the new norm. According to this piece from, a Bureau of Labor (BLS) study revealed Baby Boomers had an average 11.7 jobs over a 30-year period. In other words, they changed jobs about every 2.5 years.

One of the biggest benefits I have obtained from moving companies and changing career paths is the growth of my network. Expanding professional contacts and connections greatly impacts promotions and career growth, and moving horizontally allows you to rapidly build your network.

As this article from The Muse further points out, “Building your network within your new role can be challenging, but in the end, you’ll end up with a network much larger—and even more useful—than your original one.”

Lastly, changing professional tracks may allow for better alignment between personal values and organizational priorities. You might be able to achieve the work-life balance that you dreamed of – a balance which was not possible prior to the shift. This may mean more time with family, personal interests, and hobbies.

Side-Effects Worth Noting

As with most major changes, creating major upheaval in your professional life can make waves you need to be prepared for. There might be some judgement and questions from peers and family. Questions such as, “Why would you take a lower title?” or “Will you be paid less?” can cause self-doubt or trepidation. This is completely normal.

It was a personal challenge (at times) to explain to family members, friends, and prior co-workers why I no longer was a manager in a field I had dedicated so many years too. But I found that the more I explained it, the more I grew confident in what I was doing.

There might also be financial impacts which must be account for. One study showed that “57 percent (of surveyed individuals) indicate that a lack of financial security is a significant barrier” to shifting careers. For others considering a change, money isn’t as major of a concern as lower self-worth from the loss of a title you once perceived as desirable. According to Gallup research, 55 percent of people in the U.S. define themselves by their job, instead of considering work as simply what they do to earn a living.

If this is something that might concern you, it’s important to remember that a job title doesn’t define you. I worked through similar feelings by focusing on all the positive aspects mentioned above.

Change your mindset!

Think of career growth as a workout routine: You don’t always add weight week after week or run a longer distance in a faster time. Sometimes you lift the same weight and just add an extra repetition or set. Other times, you completely lower the weight and take a de-load week in order to progress. Your career is the same idea: take a step back and look at what your long-term goals and aspirations are. Then carefully consider what steps you need to take in order to achieve those targets. Don’t just keep doing the same thing because it’s easy (or it’s a paycheck)!

I made the horizontal/downward career move and I’ve never been happier. I have been in the Sales Development Representative (SDR) role in high-tech professional sales for 13 months and it’s paying off in a big way. The high-tech sales market is red-hot and, as a result of my strong training and experience with memoryBlue, I’m drawing major interest from a multitude of companies to take the next big step forward on this path: an Account Executive sales role. This role offers the potential for massive financial reward, work-life balance, and unlimited career growth opportunities.

If you are interested in learning more about horizontal and vertical career growth, you should reference this outstanding podcast from Harvard Business Review.

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