Shifts and Ladders: Comparing the Role of Internal and External Mobility in Managerial Careers

Career Mobility

By Matthew Bidwell & Ethan Mollick
The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Employees can build their careers either by moving into a new job within their current organization or else by moving to a different organization. We use matching perspectives on job mobility to develop predictions about the different roles that those internal and external moves will play within careers. Using data on the careers of master of business administration alumni, we show how internal and external mobility are associated with very different rewards: upward progression into a job with greater responsibilities is much more likely to happen through internal mobility than external mobility; yet despite this difference, external moves offer similar increases in pay to internal, as employers seek to attract external hires. Consistent with our arguments, we also show that the pay increases associated with external moves are lower when the moves take place for reasons other than career advancement, such as following a layoff or when moving into a different kind of work. Despite growing interest in boundary-less careers, our findings indicate that internal and external mobility play very different roles in executives’ careers, with upward mobility still happening overwhelmingly within organizations.

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