Sometimes, you have to go to the back of the line to get ahead


I remember those long lines at Disney World a few years ago winding back-and-forth for two hours until finally getting to the front of the line for a 90 second ride. Those lines were agonizing, especially in the heat. No one likes to wait in long lines. I am also especially bad at selecting which line to choose in large, big-box stores. Invariably, I choose a line with a new checker or I get just behind that person with an item that lost its barcode. Sometimes, it is just better to go to the back of another line to get ahead.

This same situation can occur with our career. You wait and wait for your opportunity to shine or to get ahead. Finally, when you think it is “your turn”, something happens to shut down your line. The job you have desired is downsized or reorganized or given to another high-potential talent that just joined the organization. Worse, you find yourself waiting behind someone that is actually blocking the line ahead. Your line isn’t moving at all!

In your career, when does it make sense to go to the back of another line? When does it make sense, if ever, to take a lateral or backward move to eventually get ahead? In my own career, there were a couple of instances when I made the choice to take a lateral or downward move. In both instances, I can honestly say that my career advanced significantly farther and faster than it would have otherwise. But, you must use a bit of caution when considering such a move. Let’s look at a few good reasons to go to the back of another line to advance your career:

  1. You can’t get where you want to go in the line you are in – One of the questions I often pose to those I mentor or coach is this, “Can you get where you want to go from here?” In other words, can you see yourself achieving your ultimate job on the course you are currently traveling? For example, if you desire to become Corporate Head of Quality, but you realize that you could never attain that position without experience leading a site quality organization, you may need to adjust your plans. It may make sense to shift to a lateral position to get the experience you know you’ll need for that ultimate job.
  2. The line is too slow – Let’s face it, we all have an expiration date. If you desire to achieve a certain position or level or functional responsibility in 5 years, but you cannot see it happening for 10 years, then the line is moving too slowly. You may need to reconsider your path or shift to another line to get ahead.
  3. You see a line blocker ahead – I have seen several instances for colleagues where an individual is blocking their chances to attain their desired position. So, they either must await that individual’s departure or find another line. When blocked, don’t assume that that individual will ever leave and don’t assume that when it does happen, that position will be yours automatically. Waiting for a blocker to leave rarely works out well.
  4. You see signs that your ultimate destination is diminishing – In your career, you can’t just hang out in line and hope that things work out in the end. You have to be attentive to what is occurring ahead of you in the line. Be alert for changes in strategy, structure, or personnel. If you see shifts that may result in significant changes ahead, it may make sense to find another line.
  5. You see a better line elsewhere – There are times when you simply are posed with a better opportunity elsewhere. When you can accelerate your career by taking a lateral or backward move, it may make sense to do so. I recall taking such a step that accelerated my career by 10 years or more. It was not without risks, but the risks were calculated and worth taking.

Changing lines in your career does pose some risks. You should exercise caution:

  • Don’t change lines to chase a title or money alone – Chasing a title rarely results in fulfillment. However, when that title expands your scope of responsibility or brings you new experiences, it makes sense.
  • Be sure you know what is occurring in your own career before making such a move – Having a frank discussion with your boss or a trusted adviser can provide unbiased information that either confirms your own observations or can offer a new, fresh perspective.
  • Don’t rush to judgment – The old advice to “sleep on it” is wise. Be certain you have calculated risks, benefits, and impacts before jumping lines.
  • Don’t forget to consider your passion in choosing lines – We do our best when we have passion for our work. Be certain to ask yourself, “What do I really want to do? Where will I be most fulfilled? What work excites me the most? What do I want to be doing for the next twenty years?” Answering these questions honestly can help you make the right choices.

So, the next time you are at the grocery store trying to decide which line is best, think about your career journey. Are you standing in the right line? Does it makes sense to go to the back of another line to get ahead?

Thanks for all you do to make the world a better place! Have a great day!