Horizontal Vs. Vertical: Choosing Your Career Path

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story by Trixie Cordova

“Growth moves everyone up,” said Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg in one of her career talks. Sheryl is a prominent figure in the business and technology sectors. She served as vice president for Global Online Sales and Operations at Google prior to taking the post of chief operating officer at Facebook. Before her stint in tech companies, she served in the US Treasury.

Sheryl’s career path is in contrast to what most of us are accustomed to. As she shared in a Fortune Magazine roundtable, one reason why men are always ahead of the game is that women are not taking enough risks. “Women are too concerned about the upward trajectory,” she lamented. Sheryl was asked why she was taking jobs “junior” to the previous posts she held. Who would have thought that the 200-plus Google workforce would become one of the world’s most valuable companies and that Facebook will revolutionize social media?

Sheryl made career choices based on underlying growth because as she learned, growth moves every one up.

Going vertical with your career

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Photo Courtesy of Konstantin Malanchev via Flickr

Vertical movement is best demonstrated by the corporate ladder: aspiring for positions in the hierarchy of a workplace system. A salesman’s goal is to someday lead his own team as a sales manager and eventually as sales director. At the top of an accountant’s career ladder is chief financial officer while a junior engineer’s is chief technical officer.

If you want to know why people opt for an alternative, take a look at baby boomers. Many have stayed in the same company for years, or even decades, doing similar jobs. They do well-defined tasks with little opportunity for creative thinking. Although a promotion may introduce new opportunities, the nature of the job is basically the same.

Millennials are creating career advancement options that don’t involve monotonous tasks, loyalty medals or any vertical movement.

The horizontal option for your career growth

Moving sideways is not a simple transfer from one department to another. It is identifying underlying growth and matching it with your own strengths. It can be a shift to a different field. Think Sheryl Sandberg. Several studies suggest that millennials or those born between the 1980s and the early 2000s are redefining how we regard “career.”

David Burnstein, author of bestselling book Why Millennials Are Generational Game Changers, said that millennials are introducing a civic-minded attitude to the workplace. Millennials choose companies that value corporate social responsibility, ethical practices and environmental issues. They prefer a more horizontal structure and less vertical system. Passion, social consciousness and innovation should be present in a career opportunity to be appealing to millennials.

What is the difference between vertical and horizontal career growth? A vertical movement is characterized by titles and tenure; a horizontal career shift is about strength and passion.

Follow where the REAL growth is

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Photo Courtesy of Unsplash via Pixabay

“How can I advance in my company?” This is one of the most widely-asked questions by workers everywhere. You’ve survived the daily grind for years, accepted tasks over and beyond your job description, and pulled countless overtime hours. Yet, you’re in limbo. Will you keep on aspiring for the next post above or a lateral transfer to another division?

Find your strength and identify areas of growth. Is public speaking your cup of tea? Do you excel in written reports and communications? Are you able to work on your own? Technology has led to outsourcing, freelancing and startups. It has become easier for companies to cut costs by sourcing out their operations to third parties, mostly offshore. This outsourcing trend is the primary reason behind the rise of freelance work. Today, you can keep earning while traveling. No bureaucracy, no difficult bosses. Just you and your computer.

Teach English, travel the world

Teaching English abroad is not your usual entry-level job. Many employees leave their desk jobs to be freelance English teachers in Asia. Imagine your job following you all the way to East Asia. David Stock, a former postal worker in Vermont, taught in Inner Mongolia for six months in 2007. “I wanted to travel, but also have something positive to do,” he told Wall Street Journal.

Instead of grabbing office-based overseas jobs, why not try teaching? This is hitting two birds with one stone: seeing the world and having the means to do so. Remember to equip yourself with the right skills. A four-year degree and a certification to teach English is required in language centers abroad.

Many millennials were brought up by families that follow the traditional path in life: go to school, earn a degree, get a job, settle down and retire.  Parents would talk about their own climb up the corporate ladder from a corner cubicle to the board room, and mention years and years of being a striving employee. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you have options.

You can explore international jobs after or even while finishing your degree. Explore job opportunities for foreign students. You may work or teach abroad as an English teacher via international schools or as a freelancer. Your options are boundless. It all depends on your mindset. Will you wait for career opportunities or will you create them?

Trixie Cordova


Trixie is the Student Outreach Coordinator at Diversity Abroad. She studied abroad in Italy as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, then went on to be an Assistant Language Teacher on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program for 2 years. She has her MA in International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.

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