Is your promotion ladder broken?

06 Feb
February 6, 2015

Susy Roberts, 6th February 2015

Years of restructuring and redundancy activity means most business have become so streamlined that that traditional opportunities for promotion and progression have all but gone. But 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 is to turn the promotion ladder on its side, by using Lateral Development to move people across the organisation, in ways designed to keep them feeling challenged and motivated.

Grow your people sideways

When there simply aren’t promotion opportunities available for highly prized people you’d 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.

The most common forms of lateral development include:

  • Lateral Job Swaps: Employees in different roles but at a similar level are allowed to take on each other’s role so that they can learn new skills, broaden their sector or organisational knowledge or improve their technical skills. Such moves may only require reporting into a new manager or changing teams but might also involve moving to a new department, site or even another country.
  • Lateral Project Management: Employees remain in their current roles but are given the opportunity 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 might even be available working alongside colleagues outside the business, with a key suppliers or customer, allowing them to stretch their skill set and sector knowledge.
  • Lateral Leadership Development: Employees are helped to prepare for future promotion opportunities via a leadership development course, be this 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.

Whatever 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 demands being placed upon them. Even if this just takes the form of a couple of hours a month with an external coach, or ongoing internal coaching from their 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.

What are the benefits?

Although lateral changes to job roles are typically unaccompanied by an increase in salary, the development can help to limit the number of capable and ambitious employees looking outside of the business for their next challenge. It also gives them an opportunity to broaden their skills set 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.

Should you be offering Lateral Development?

Although there might 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 skills set in a new direction.

Of course there are some initial training and cost implications associated with continuing to invest in someone’s development when you still might 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.

The question to ask is do you want to keep skilled employees, who would otherwise be ready for promotion, by increasing their skills set and company knowledge even further? Or would you just be developing them to move onto another employer?

Interestingly enough, when I spoke to some of our clients just embarking on Lateral Development programmes, most were very 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. Not least as 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 sometime to come.

To find out how our consultancy services can help you to make Lateral Development a key part of your L&D strategy this year, contact us via:

++44 (0) 1270 750 232 or email

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