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SNAKES AND LADDERS: What not to do when taking a sideways or downward career step

Margot Smith

Careers can sometimes be like Snakes & Ladders. You take on a high profile project and overachieve, and you climb up the ladder. Next thing, you realise you are becoming too technically specialised, and you decide to take a step down to get more experience in a broader range of management and leadership skills, and down the snake you go.

When people take a step down or sideways, even if it’s for very strategic reasons, the biggest success factor is attitude. As in Snakes & Ladders, different roles (both paid and voluntary) are steps towards your ultimate destination. This is never a straightforward path.

If you’re faced with a sideways or downward career step, my advice is to put you big girl (or boy) pants on and make the most of it. See it is an opportunity. After all, many other people would probably be grateful to have the role you’ve just secured.


I moved to the UK at the start of the global financial crisis. I considered myself quite the catch from an employer’s perspective and thought it would take me days, not weeks or months to land a role in London. But it took me two months to secure a three-month contract position. I went from managing a team of 20 in Australia to flying solo in a project-based role. But I embraced it and, before long, I was offered another, meatier role.

It’s fair to say that I went to London to add global experience to my CV and also to enjoy living and working in Europe. During these two years, I travelled more than I have ever had the pleasure of doing before or after. I also met some lifelong friends.

So my priority was living life to the fullest, not just career development. But it took me several years to get back to the responsibility levels of my pre-London role.


Informed by my experiences, and also those of friends and colleagues who have also taken a perceived sideways or downward career step, I can share the following tips.

  1. Don’t remind everyone repeatedly that this is a step down for you. Whether or not the decision to take this career move was your choice, be mindful of those around you. Reminding everyone around that you are “better than this” doesn’t reflect well on you. If you are humble and show colleagues what you can do, they will see how much value you can add.

2. Don’t treat the role as beneath you. Give the role 100% and approach it with a positive and proactive attitude. That is the best way to demonstrate that you can add more value. You have made a choice to take this role (whether or not the path that led you here was of your choosing), so do your best and overachieve, if that’s what you have the potential to do.

3. Don’t fail to respect the people around you in similar roles or circumstances. Be aware of those around you, and how your language and behaviour could be interpreted by them. If they are both fortunate and happy with their role and position within the organisation, your comments about this role being a step down (for you) is not particularly sensitive. So zip it, and get on with it.

4. Don’t ditch the role as soon as you can. I can think of too many circumstances where people have taken a role for the right reasons at a point in time, only to resign within a few weeks when something else comes up. Yes, you have your career to think about and you are only answerable to yourself, but think about the organisation you have made a commitment to. They have inducted you, spent time and resources to get you up to speed and, if you make a fast exit, you’re leaving them in the lurch. Think carefully about your reasons for taking the role in the first place. Are they still valid? If so, don’t jump ship for the sake of it. Consider if there is still growth in this role.

There are times when the role advertised doesn’t match the reality you find once inside (and probation exists for both parties). But if you made a choice to take this role and if it’s exactly what they advertised it to be – you should consider honouring that commitment for a reasonable period of time.

5. Don’t be smug when you move onto the next opportunity. Okay, so you’ve given the role a red hot go, and a new opportunity has opened up internally or externally. Everything is finally falling into place. Be gracious, be grateful for the opportunity and thank everyone who supported you in this role. Time for your next adventure!


Margot Smith is the General Manager Membership at IML.


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