Management – or at least the path to management – is a funny thing. Traditionally, the path to career advancement has meant that people start out as individual contributors. There’s only so far they can advance as “doers”, so they strive to move up the ranks by becoming managers. Those who are upwardly mobile work hard to be recognized as among the few smart contributors who get chosen to move into management. So the typical track to career advancement is sequential – entry level, senior level, principal, manager, etc.
The presumption is that in order to advance, individual contributors will have to go from “doers” to managers. It’s been embedded into our culture as part of the dream to make more money and be more “successful” by becoming a manager.
I think what has become the standard culture – stacking individual contributors and management positions as some sort of linear “silo” is a fatal mistake made by a lot of companies and by a lot of very bright individual contributors who want to get ahead and feel valued in an organization.
In some ways, and for some very talented individuals, forcing them into management is like throwing them under a bus. Why? Because parts of management suck like they’ve never imagined.
Management is not what it’s cracked out to be. When you become a manager your employees come first and you come second. If you’re going to be a good manager, you need to understand that your needs, desires, etc. come second. Your job is to serve the people you manage – so they have clarity, so they know what success looks like. The reality is most people aren’t ready for that.
Putting people first is exhausting work. You have to always think about their happiness. People in the aggregate can be hard to deal with – you’ll have under performers, troublemakers, etc. As a manager, you have to be ready to give your employees the direct feedback they deserve, and that’s not always a comfortable thing to do. There will inevitably come the time when you’ll have to let someone go. In short, you’ll have to deal with a lot of meetings, politics, and other intricacies of the role, all the while making sure you’re being tactful.
When I interview people for managerial roles, I ask them how they deal with the sucky parts of management, like firing and disciplining employees. I often hear, “No parts of management suck”. That’s just sheer bull. Either they’re completely disillusioned or weren’t really in a true manager’s role before. Maybe they were called “managers” but have never had to deal with real management issues. In truth, becoming a manager impacts your quality of life inside and outside of work.
I’m not saying advancing into management or being a manager is a bad thing. I’m just saying it’s not for everyone. All too often, when you promote someone into management as part of a sequential silo, you lose your best individual contributor and gain your worst manager.
The bad news is the legacy of corporate America is what it is. Traditional silo-style career progression is asking for trouble. Yes, there are people out there who are built for the transition to manage and understand what they’re getting themselves into. However, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
The good news is that some companies are creating parallel tracks where contributions are highly valued both as an individual contributor and as a manager. Good companies place equal value on top notch individual contributors and top notch managers. Both have room for progression. Both are recognized for their specific talents.
In my earlier post, Mentorship vs Management — Solving the problem I suggested that getting an org chart right involves equality and voluntary transitions (illustrated above). This is a dual approach where individual contributors have more room to grow in a mentorship path and remain contributors. They can move into management if they want to – and honestly believe they have what it takes to be good managers – but they can also move higher within their role as contributors, with increasing levels of compensation and more room for growth. As they move up the ladder, their opportunities and responsibility for mentorship increase.
In short, the best doers can spend their time doing and the best managers can spend their time managing. And I’ve got to believe that’s the best long-term solution for keeping workers happy.