Lateral thinking: how bosses can motivate staff through a promotion drought

08 April 2015 -


Jobs at the top are in short supply – but even so, our guest columnist suggests, lateral development plans can help staff feel engaged and committed enough to stay with you

Susy Roberts

Thanks to years of restructuring and redundancies, most businesses have become so streamlined that traditional opportunities for promotion and progression have all but gone. So the question is, if the promotion ladder is broken, how do you retain and motivate star performers as they come up through the ranks?

One of the most interesting solutions to emerge in recent times is to turn the promotion ladder on its side, by using “lateral development” to move people across the organisation and help to keep them feeling challenged and motivated.


When there simply aren’t promotion opportunities available for highly prized individuals who you would otherwise gladly move up a level, lateral development enables you to retain them and keep them motivated, by allowing them to learn new skills and gain valuable knowledge.

Some of the most common forms of lateral development are:

1. Lateral job swaps

Here, employees in different roles – but at a similar level – are allowed to take on each other’s roles, so that they can learn new skills, broaden their sector or organisational knowledge or improve their technical knowhow. Such moves may only require reporting into a new manager, or changing teams – but may also involve moving to a new department, site or even another country.

2. Lateral project management

Employees remain in their current roles, but are given opportunities to manage or participate in a key project, perhaps in another department, or representing their own department in a cross-functional project team. Project work may even be available working alongside colleagues outside the business, with key suppliers or customers, allowing them to stretch their skillsets and sector knowledge.

3. Lateral leadership development

Employees are helped to prepare for future promotion opportunities via a leadership development course with fellow aspiring leaders, or via one-on-one leadership coaching. Development activities are accompanied by lateral opportunities to showcase their new skills elsewhere in the business, while reinforcing a sense that their employer has concrete plans for their progression.

Whichever way you decide to redeploy and divert your most talented people across your organisation, it’s also worth investing in some lateral coaching to help individuals quickly adapt to their new role or the demands that are placed upon them. Even if that just takes the form of a couple of hours a month with an external coach, or ongoing internal coaching from a manager, it will help them to get the most out of the opportunity and feel like they’re being developed in new directions – rather than just moved around the organisation.

Although lateral changes to job roles are typically unaccompanied by salary rises, the development can help to limit the number of capable and ambitious employees who are looking outside of the business for their next challenge. It also gives them an opportunity to broaden their skillsets and make a more meaningful contribution.

From an organisational perspective, the value associated with alleviating the boredom and dissatisfaction experienced by employees forced to stay in a role they no longer find challenging cannot be underestimated. Individually tailored lateral development sends a clear message that you value your people, and want to continue investing in their development, even if the traditional opportunities for upward progression are no longer there.

Although there may not be an obvious “opening” to prepare the employee to be promoted into, employees still want to feel like they’re being invested in and developed – not to mention stretched and challenged in positive ways. By providing them with lateral development, until a suitable promotion opportunity arises, you can prolong their willingness to stay with the organisation and continue to benefit from their existing expertise, while also building their skillsets in new directions.

Of course, there are some initial training and cost implications associated with continuing to invest in someone’s development when you still may not be able to offer a promotion at the end of it. But if you don’t take steps to keep them developing when they’ve learned all they can from their current role, the chances are good people will want to move on anyway.

In the end, you must ask yourself: do you want to keep skilled employees – who would otherwise be ready for promotion – by increasing their skillsets and company knowledge even further? Or would you just be shaping them up to move on to another employer?

Interestingly, when I spoke to some of my firm’s clients who are just embarking on lateral development programmes, most were fully prepared for the possibility that the employees currently being developed will inevitably still want to move on in a year’s time. Even so, they still see lateral development as a key employee retention and engagement tool, for as long as it takes for the promotion ladder to mend itself.

With organisations pared back as much as possible, and any organisational chart illustrating just how few jobs there are at the top, promotional opportunities are set to remain scarce for some time to come.

Susy Roberts is managing director at people development consultancy Hunter Roberts

For more on employee engagement, read this special CMI blog.

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