Lateral Career Moves Bring Unexpected Opportunities

Two women engineers who’ve made sideways career moves say they’ve benefited immensely from the experience — and you can, too.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

“To me, being an engineer is all about tackling challenges. So I have made lateral moves in my career when I felt there was a new and exciting opportunity where I would be able to learn and improve my technical depth,” said Beth Keser, Ph.D., president of the International Microelectronics Assembly & Packaging Society, who, as senior principal engineer and manager, leads Intel Corp.’s worldwide packaging and systems technology department in the Product Enablement Solutions Group.

Kristie Pickering, utilities and infrastructure director at BASF’s largest North American manufacturing plant, in Geismar, Louisiana, has succeeded at several lateral career moves within the German multinational chemical company — the result of staying open to opportunities outside of her original career plan.

“Through my different moves, I’ve stayed close to manufacturing, and I’ve been able to see production from several angles — maintenance, procurement, and strategy — and that has enhanced my ability to see the big picture,” Pickering said.

The two women advise others to take risks and realize that lateral career moves can enhance their leadership qualities.

“As a hiring manager, when I see someone who is eager to learn new things, and you know that person can succeed in a different environment, I’ll consider [them] for lots of opportunities,” said Pickering, a diversity and inclusion champion who is helping lead BASF’s pilot initiative to support leadership development for a diverse pool of employees.

“We talk a lot about ‘breadth’ or ‘depth’ careers,” Pickering said. “If you want to be on a general management track on the ‘breadth’ side, lateral career moves are absolutely essential.”

Credit: BASF

“Through my different moves, I’ve stayed close to manufacturing, and I’ve been able to see production from several angles — maintenance, procurement, and strategy — and that has enhanced my ability to see the big picture.”

– Kristie Pickering, utilities and infrastructure director, BASF

Dr. Keser, who earned a bachelor’s and Ph.D. in materials science and engineering, advises young women: “Don’t be sedentary. Challenge yourself. Don’t think that going from managing a large group to a small team or no team is a career reversal. If the opportunity is exciting, take it.”

Both Pickering and Dr. Keser have realized family flexibility, too. Pickering, who holds an MBA and an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, has raised two sons with her husband and their extended families near her hometown.

Dr. Keser’s philosophy of staying flexible by “living your life as if you are in a one-income family” has enabled her husband, who is also a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering, to work as a full-time dad to the couple’s two daughters for the past 18 years.

How lateral moves enhance learning

Dr. Keser works out of San Diego and supervises engineers in Santa Clara, California; Chandler, Arizona; and Munich. She made her first lateral move in 2001, from leading a small research-and-development team to leading a product development team. She earned the transition after impressing a company vice president with her vision and transparency. The vice president gave her an opportunity to move out of the lab and work on products.

“I started my career as an individual contributor working in a research-and-development lab, but I quickly moved to being both a researcher in the lab and project manager,” she said. “Within three years of starting my career, I was managing people.”

Product development also gave Dr. Keser the opportunity to understand product schedules, customer requirements, and managing within a cost target. “I have worked both in technology development and product development,” she said. “Doing both has really given me perspective that I would not have had if I had just done one or the other.

“I really thrive in technology development, but I know ultimately the technologies I deliver must be used in products so they must be low-cost, reliable, and manufacturable,” she said.

At Dr. Keser’s third company, she developed solutions for smartphone chipsets — products that must be low cost and reliable, as well as small and lightweight.

“Don’t be sedentary. Challenge yourself. Don’t think that going from managing a large group to a small team or no team is a career reversal. If the opportunity is exciting, take it.”

– Beth Keser, Ph.D., senior principal engineer and manager, Intel Corp.

Dr. Keser grew up in Rochester, New York, during the 1980s — the heyday of hometown companies Xerox, Eastman Kodak, and Bausch and Lomb, among others — and wanted to be an engineer like many of her friends’ parents.

But Dr. Keser learned growing up in a working-class family that she “never wanted to fall into the trap where living a certain lifestyle required me to do a job that I did not like only for the pay.”

“By living below my means, I have been able to take jobs in more expensive areas that did not include a pay raise just because I wanted the opportunity and experience,” she said.

For example, Dr. Keser moved to San Diego from Phoenix with no base salary increase at her new job.

Similarly, Pickering said her lateral-move experience enabled her to learn intangible qualities, too, such as dealing with employee and customer issues and networking with co-workers in various departments.

One example is when she switched from being a production engineer, overseeing day-to-day chemical plant issues such as safety and maintenance, to a role as energy and industrial gas procurement manager with no employees reporting directly to her.

“By changing roles, I learned more about developing strategy,” she said. “For me, it was a complete 180. I went from being in a role with constant interruptions and interactions to one that provided more time for planning and in which interactions were more deliberate.”

In the procurement role, Pickering’s manager was based in New Jersey and gave her lots of leeway. She recalled telling her manager that she saw a need for a strategy change, to which her manager responded, “Go for it. Make your business plan.”

“It’s important to work in a functional group or a service such as procurement,” she said. “Even in a utilities role, we’re considered more of a partner with all of the production units. You learn how to interact with people, since you deal with a lot of issues.”

It’s also about networking.

Another of Pickering’s lateral moves — to asset manager from a role as manager of engineering and maintenance for one-third of BASF’s largest North American plant — enabled her to set longer-term strategy.

Pickering leveraged her experience overseeing maintenance, production, and technology to answer high-level questions such as: “How are we doing on reliability? What’s the long-term demand from customers in five, 10, and 15 years? Are we doing the right things today to support that?”

“Every career move has taught me new skills and enabled me to build on previous experiences,” she said. “That perspective is very valuable. Maybe it feels as though you’re moving across before you go up, but you’re able to move up in a more sustainable way in terms of helping your career growth. You’ve gone through those challenging times and come out the other side of it.”

Insights from a career coach

Loren Margolis, founder and CEO of Training & Leadership Success, a global leadership and development firm, says she focuses on debunking lateral-career-move myths and misconceptions.

Margolis offers the following insights:

  • Gone are the days of only moving up to grow your career. That’s especially true as you become a senior leader who needs a strategic perspective across the organization. You’re building new skills, encountering new business problems to solve, and gaining access to new people. The comprehensive portfolio of knowledge will make you more attractive, not solely a vertical rise. It is a myth that the only way to have a career is to move up.
  • Unless you’ve had specific conversations with your manager on how you want to grow, you need to steer your career. That means you cannot wait for a “big break.”
  • “Most managers are too busy supervising work, making sure people make their goals, and worrying about their own work,” Margolis said. “They are unaware or have no time to guide your career. They also don’t know how. Finally, you may be working for an organization that doesn’t expect your manager to help you, so it’s not part of their own performance metrics.” In other words, it is a misconception to think that your organization and your manager are looking out for you and your career growth.
  • Ask yourself, “How can I present my move as something bigger and better and a step up even if on paper it doesn’t look like it?” Margolis said. Look at these moves as your own management rotational program that large companies leverage to develop their managers, she said. It is a misconception to think that lateral moves will make you look as though you don’t have what it takes to move “up.”
  • Lastly, build your own advisory group, Margolis said. “Choose people you look up to. You can turn to them and ask their advice or have them mentor you informally.”

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