Skip to content

Moving Sideways Like a Crab By Alec Hill

The Virtue of Sideways Career Moves

Most of us only think about our careers vertically, not sideways. We either move upward (promotion) or downward (demotion).

But there’s another, often overlooked, route. This involves making crablike horizontal moves to take new positions at roughly the same level, title, and pay grade.

Lateral moves may occur either with a current employer or a new one. When I was in my thirties, I switched from a director-level role with one relief and development ministry (World Concern) to a comparable job with another (World Relief).   

Sideways moves are surprisingly common among senior leaders. In a survey of 1,000 executives, 80% said they had benefited from a lateral change at some point in their work lives.

Career progression is generally more akin to a jungle gym than a ladder. Vertical and horizontal moves weave together, often in unpredictable and non-linear ways.

Here are three reasons why lateral moves can be a good idea.

Sideways Opportunities Abound

Many mid-level leaders feel stuck due to the relative scarcity of senior positions. In comparison, lateral jobs are abundant. Rather than growing complacent in a position, why not look for other ways to serve?

Research shows that employees who move laterally inside organizations are far more likely to be promoted over their non-transferring peers. And their long-term retention rates are nearly 20% higher.

I have an InterVarsity colleague who has served in a wide variety of director-level positions on campus, marketing, leadership development, and conferencing. Her willingness to take risks in multiple roles demonstrated her adaptability and self-confidence and recently resulted in a promotion to vice president.    

Grow Professionally and Personally

New positions allow us to gain new skills. For example, over the years I’ve observed several front-line ministry staff move into fund-development positions. For the most part, they’ve flourished.

Something quickens within us when we venture outside our comfort zone. Such change, while certainly disruptive, is also generative. Feeling overwhelmed can accelerate both personal resilience and professional maturity. Forced to adapt, we grow.

A friend of mine has served as a senior leader of many teams, including operations, ministry programs, development, and missions. Due to his wide range of skills and experiences, he is one of the wisest, most versatile, and invaluable leaders I know. His advice is constantly sought.

Stagnation is bad for the soul. Lateral moves can be a cure. In a recent Gallup poll, less than a third of American workers said that they were “engaged” with their jobs. The remaining two-thirds were either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” For many of us, taking a new role is a pathway to refreshing our energy and sharpening our sense of purpose.    

Develop Broader Networks

Lateral moves increase the number of staff we know – that’s a mathematical certainty. Why is this important? For several reasons:

  • We can become key players in intra-departmental collaboration. Relationships are often the best way to dismantle silos.    
  • By seeing the ministry we work for from various perspectives, we develop a more holistic sense of how diverse functions might better align.  
  • If our current situation involves an ineffective boss or poorly functioning team, we can pick a new group to join.  
  • As more supervisors become aware of our capabilities, opportunities for advancement increase.

Two decades ago, I hired a young assistant who gained an incredible understanding of each VP area. After careful observation, he selected a team that most resonated with his sense of calling and giftedness. He has served as a senior director on that team ever since.

Be a Crab

Having started with one crab metaphor, I’ll close with another.

Crabs have an unusual growth pattern. Since their outer shells can’t expand, they are eventually compelled to cast them off and build new ones. Through this molting process, they mature and enlarge.

Just so, we should not be afraid to grow out of our current jobs. While moving into a new role certainly entails risk, it often results in greater fruitfulness.   

With faith and courage, let us serve God by expanding our range of skills, experiences, and relationships.   


Alec Hill is President Emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA. He has also served as a Regional Director for World Relief and a Dean at Seattle Pacific University.

Your Alliance seeks new ways to spread higher thinking for today’s Christian nonprofit professionals!

Now, you can listen to Outcomes magazine articles as the team of contributors reads them.

Find them embedded in the magazine or on the CLATV network!


What is Christian Leadership Alliance?

Christian Leadership Alliance equips and unites leaders to transform the world for Christ. We are the leaders of Christ-centered organizations who are dedicated to faithful stewardship for greater kingdom impact.

Upcoming Events

Check back later!