By Sarah Scudder

I have surrounded myself with overachievers, who have felt that getting an A-minus wasn’t good enough, being a vice president at age 22 wasn’t reaching high enough, and running a million-dollar company by age 27 wasn’t growing quickly enough. Many of my friends work insane schedules chasing the next promotion or job opportunity.

I’ve wondered: Is there any instance in which my friends would consider a demotion? Or a lateral move in another industry? Would they be willing to make less money?

Taking these thoughts further: Why would anyone step down from the stairway to corporate heaven? Wouldn’t it be a sign of weakness and failure?

That’s what I thought up until three years ago, when I attended a hospitality industry conference — specifically, a seminar featuring a panel with three female CEOs. The moderator asked the first panelist, Julia, to tell about her most difficult, yet smartest, career move. She smiled and said, “That’s easy. I think about it often.”

Julia had been the chief marketing officer (CMO) at a large restaurant firm. She knew she wanted to run a company but found that going from CMO to CEO is not an easy path. Julia realized she needed management experience. To get it, she quit her CMO job to become a manager at a fast-food restaurant. She went from a corporate office job to working nights and weekends wrapping burritos and scrambling eggs for breakfast quesadillas. Crazy? Some of her acquaintances thought so.

But Julia had a different perspective. She felt it would be the best way to get the operational, financial and leadership experience needed to run a large company.

She was right. Julia Stewart eventually became a CEO: In 2007, when IHOP merged with Applebee’s, she became CEO of the newly formed parent company, DineEquity.

Listening to Julia’s story gave me goose bumps. The thought of giving up everything I’d built to move down the ladder to gain more experience was at once terrifying and exhilarating.

Since then, I’ve kept Julia’s story in mind as I’ve considered career moves. Her story always reminds me that making a lateral move or stepping down a bit can be very important in achieving my long-term goals.

Here are five reasons why you should consider a lesser or lateral move within or outside your company:

1) Experiences. Taking on a lesser or lateral role allows you to experience new environments. It gives you practice in learning how to handle situations you’ve never been exposed to. The more experience you have, the more you will be prepared for a higher position someday.

2) Connections. The more people you know, the more advocates you have. Taking a lesser or lateral position allows you to meet new colleagues, suppliers and industry leaders. If you make time to win over their trust by helping them, their respect is certain to follow.

3) Skills. The best way to learn something is to do it. Does a high school coach learn how to play volleyball by watching others? No, she was a player. She is a great coach, a great leader because she paid dues by digging and spiking and learning and loving the sport. It’s easy to read about how to do something or ask others for advice, but there’s no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and doing something yourself. Taking a lesser or lateral position can be the quickest way to learn new skills.

4) Adaptation: The ability to adapt to change is one of the most important leadership skills in today’s business environment. A lesser or lateral move allows you to work with new colleagues and new managers. This requires you to adapt, interact and take on new challenges. You experience getting out of your comfort zone. Let’s face it: We all get stuck in a routine. I’m one of the worst — I’m so structured that my calendar includes when I sleep, work out, shower and eat.

5) Leadership: People are different. Leaders have different ways of managing, motivating and setting a vision. Taking a lesser or lateral position can give you the opportunity to work for and with diverse types of people. Such an experience can drive how you communicate, interact, structure your schedule and give feedback. The better you are at working with diverse types of people, the faster your career will advance.

Taking on a lesser or lateral job isn’t for everyone – it can be hard leaving a comfort zone for the unknown. But it’s an option worth considering. You can gain skills, make contacts and learn to adapt, all of which will help you as you move up the corporate ladder.

Sarah Scudder is president of Real Sourcing Network. She is based in Petaluma, California.

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