Not Every Career Path Should Lead to Manager

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Sep 19, 2019
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Why do so few companies provide opportunities for individual contributors to continue doing what they do best — or move sideways into some other direct line of work? Why is climbing into the managerial ranks so often the only path to better pay and more prestige? Pretty much everyone acknowledges the reality of the Peter Principle — so why do we keep promoting people into jobs they don’t have the skills for and may well have no real interest in doing? Why do we keep promoting people right out of their comfort zone?

Personally, I’ve never wanted to be a manager, which is a good thing because I’ll be the first to say I’m not particularly good at managing people. In fact, the desire to “just do the work” is part of what led me to strike out on my own, where, despite a thriving and sometimes overwhelmingly busy business, I still do most of the work myself. I’m not alone in this attitude. Among my friends, colleagues, and family members, I know a great many highly successful people leaders. But I also know quite a few who are quite happy leaving the official leadership roles to someone else.

This doesn’t always mean they aren’t leaders. Leadership can take many forms, and strong individual contributors often play a leadership role in their workplace culture. In fact, sometimes they are better leaders as individual contributors than they turn out to be as managers.

What the “next step: management” approach forgets

There’s an oft-ignored flip side to the Peter Principle. We all know — or should know — that promoting someone without interest or talent into a management role can be a recipe for some pretty bad management — likely leading to an unproductive and unhappy team. Worst case, it can lead to turnover among the team, itself, and may even cause the inappropriately-promoted employee to quit. But less talked about is the fact that it also leaves a hole in the ranks of individual contributors, sometimes forcing companies to replace a talented, experienced, and knowledgeable individual contributor with a callow newbie. In what universe does this make any sense?

It seems pretty clear that allowing people to do what they do best, and grow their careers organically from there, is a win-win. But in order for this to happen we need to give them opportunities that parallel those of managers, and that means thinking differently about individual contributors. We need to encourage and reward them for leadership. We need to help them continue developing their skills. We need to recognize their experience and institutional knowledge.

An article by Jeff Miller, in Chief Learning Officer, delves into this idea, encouraging leaders to make it clear that career growth doesn’t have to mean an inevitable journey along the well-worn path into management. There is no reason there should not be benchmarks that chart advancement for individual contributors, just as there are for people moving up the ranks.

Needed: a culture shift

In fact, some companies have just that. A piece in The Economist describes some companies that have taken an intentional approach to creating alternative career paths, including the technology firm, Hyland. Noticing it had highly talented technical staff who were developing strategies and making critical decisions within their projects, despite not being people managers, Hyland restructured job levels and pay to reward them. It also instituted a detailed system mapping out a wide variety of career paths and the competencies required to follow them.

One of the biggest challenges, according to Mary Vales, the company’s senior manager of learning and organizational development, was the culture shift necessitated by this innovation: “All employees have had to learn to recognize the new levels and status of technologists; for instance, a “Developer 5” is equivalent in level to a director.”

Culture shift is exactly what this is all about, in the end. According to Armin Trost, a professor of human resource management interviewed for The Economist article, alternative career paths are part of the natural progression of work from being top-down and hierarchical, with bosses instructing employees how and what to do, to being more like an orchestra. The musicians know best how to play their own instruments, and “the conductor’s only job is to get these experts to make something big together.”

Ah, what could be a nicer thought? Organizations running like orchestras, making symphonies out of the bottom line.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.