Career growth isn't about staying in your lane. If the corporate ladder represents how people used to think about professional growth, the career lattice is its successor.
A career lattice is a career progression pathway that allows for vertical, horizontal, and diagonal movement. In layperson’s terms, that means employees don’t have to stay in their departments to grow. There’s a demand for this kind of flexibility, as one survey found that nearly 90% of workers would consider a cross-departmental move without a financial incentive.
“The career lattice expands the traditional ladder to include diagonal job growth, allowing employees to explore and grow their careers by moving across the company, into varied roles that offer competency development,” said Jessica Lim, HR Manager at LiveCareer. “This type of career strategy creates a more well-rounded understanding of the company and the industry, and how each department contributes.”
Career lattices aren’t a one-sided perk meant to cater to employees who are feeling bored or restless. There’s a strong business case for keeping top talent in-house, even if they don’t neatly conform to one department.
“We’ve been experimenting with the career lattice model for a while and we’ve seen some great results. We were able to hang onto some of our best people this way,” said Hosea Chang, Chief Operating Officer at Hayden Los Angeles. As his team discovered, the most talented employees often have skills that can be applied elsewhere. An adept project manager can get things done in marketing or engineering. A great communicator can keep clients happy or close lucrative deals. “It starts with asking, ‘If this stellar employee has done such a great job in their department, what else can they do?’” Chang said. As an added benefit, finding these skills internally means companies can save on recruiting.
Since career lattices facilitate lateral movement within the company, they can have the long-term effect of breaking down boundaries between teams. Cross-departmental collaboration comes more naturally when you have employees that have served multiple teams. Experts added that career lattices can also be used to bring outside perspectives to teams that are feeling stuck.
“Flexibility in career development not only increases employee satisfaction but also benefits your organization by fostering knowledge transfer. When employees switch teams, they can bring fresh perspectives to the table and drive the company forward,” Lim said. For example, a client service professional can help a marketing team better empathize with customers and ensure its messaging doesn’t come off as out of touch.
Cory Colton, an executive coach at Inflection Point Coaching, spent over 20 years leading learning and development (L&D) teams at companies like Cox and Citigroup. Having implemented career lattices at several organizations, he knows the first step is getting buy-in from the top. While HR can advise on strategy, only executive leadership can get everyone on board. Their endorsement will especially matter when managers might be reluctant to part ways with their reports.
“Executives need to identify talent development and career growth as a strategic imperative...The business should partner in, or take lead on, the structure for the career lattice. It should be tied to the overall strategy of the company and help it move forward toward growth and sustainability,” Colton said. To further discourage managers from “talent hoarding,” he said that executive leadership should set goals around internal hiring.
Next, HR and recruiting teams should advertise openings internally, early and often. Consider sharing a pared-down version of the job description that focuses on transferable skills. Distilling job openings to their key competencies can cut through jargon that would otherwise make them seem unapproachable to someone outside that department.
“HR teams should create a listing board where managers can post the availability of opportunities. New roles should be emailed to all employees so that they're aware of those options,” said Ian Kelly, VP of Operations at NuLeaf. Others recommended that HR teams and hiring managers walk through internal openings during all-hands meetings and share them via messaging apps like Slack. Encourage interested employees to apply and consult with their manager during an upcoming one-on-one. If your recruiting team uses an applicant tracking system, add a custom field to flag internal applications as they come in.
From there, HR teams should discuss the viability of the move with both the employee’s current manager and the one hiring for the role. In companies where career conversations are already the norm, the former shouldn’t be caught off guard. Whether or not the news comes as a surprise, Colton recommends that someone on your HR or L&D team facilitate the conversation.
People aren’t one dimensional — so why should their careers be? More than half of U.S. workers say they’ll probably change careers someday. Three-quarters of millennials say they will.
For business and HR leaders like Lim, replacing the traditional ladder with the career lattice isn’t just about being a progressive, people-centric business. It’s a matter of survival. Why go against the tide? Top performers in any field are a rarity — hold onto the ones you have.
“People are going to look for new passions and development areas during their careers. Why not give them the possibility to develop their passions within your organization?” she said.