When Chris Capossela joined Microsoft in 1991, one of the first things he noticed was how much faster his co-workers were getting promoted than him.
At first, he shrugged the news of their promotions off — he was, after all, a marketing manager, while his work friends were engineers and product designers, and their teams worked at different paces. Plus, he told himself, who doesn't feel insecure in their 20s, at the start of their careers?
He switched jobs within a year, becoming a product manager on Microsoft's desktop database products team, but the lateral move didn't quiet the deep sense of unease and imposter syndrome that started to creep in.
"I was watching my roommates, who also worked in Microsoft, get offered higher-paying jobs and promotions faster than me and it made me wonder, 'Gosh, am I doing something wrong?'" he tells CNBC Make It.
Still, he decided to chase the jobs within Microsoft he was passionate about, even if they didn't come with a larger paycheck or a more senior title.
Thirty-one years and several job switches later, Capossela, 53, is now Microsoft's chief marketing officer — and he wouldn't have made it to the C-Suite, he says, without first learning how to fight imposter syndrome and letting passion, not competitiveness or others' expectations, guide his career.
One of the most important lessons Capossela has learned in his career at Microsoft is that there's no clear path to success.
"You're going to move at a pace that's different from the person to your left and to your right, but if you spend all your time looking left and right and comparing yourself to your peer group, you're going to miss out on a great, organic career that's rich and full of learning," he says. "It's very toxic and dangerous to do that."
Lateral career moves can be just as valuable as vertical advancement, he adds. "I was never a five-year or 10-year plan person … when I first started at Microsoft, I was just following my gut and taking cool jobs that I qualified for," he says. "But in the long term, lateral moves and taking positions on different teams can really pay off because it gives you a broader perspective of your industry or your company that will make you a more valuable worker down the line."
You don't have to switch jobs to reap the benefits of a lateral career move, either: showing interest in what other teams within your organization do, learning different job responsibilities and being willing to take on opportunities beyond the narrow scope of what's in your role description (to an amount that you can manage) are all great ways to challenge yourself and position yourself for the next step in your career, Capossela notes.
The most successful people don't fixate on how long it will take them to achieve a certain title or make six-figures, Capossela says.
"Don't fall into the trap of thinking, 'If I'm not a manager in 10 years, I'm a failure' or a different milestone," he cautions. "I don't find that people who have long careers that they're happy with think that way … instead, they're focused on how they can add value to their team today and how they can learn and grow within their current role."
There's no secret to moving up the corporate career ladder, but Capossela stresses that you will be more confident and successful at work if you align your professional pursuits with your passion.
"You're going to do your best work when you're most passionate about it and don't spend all your energy questioning whether that job will benefit your career trajectory in the long-term and what other people are doing," he says.
"My number one piece of advice is to always take the job you're most passionate about, because that's where you'll be your very best, and when other people see you at your best, it's more likely to lead to other great opportunities."