How solid is that career ladder?

I had dinner with my brother about a month ago, and he was sharing his frustration about career choices – in order to move up, he has to supervise people. But he doesn’t like managing people, and he doesn’t want to stop doing the highly technical work that he loves. This past weekend I had dinner with a friend who was telling me about her job. Her department is now fully staffed, and she has eight direct reports. I said it must be great to be fully staffed, and she acknowledged that it was, but also that managing so many people was taking her away from the content work that brought her to that organization in the first place. “I spend all my time thinking about other people’s professional development.” Managing people has become a distraction.

We all know that promoting subject matter experts to management is fraught with problems. The skills that make you good at your job are not the same skills that make you a good manager. I have a Master’s degree in management, but no one in my program was studying to become a manager. Managing people is seen as a side effect of career development, and we don’t give it enough time and attention. We don’t spend enough time training new managers about how to do it well. There’s been a lot written about how we can do that better, and why we must.

What we don’t talk about enough is how to create viable career paths for talented people who don’t want to manage. Why is managing people traditionally the only way ahead? Why should a talented individual contributor be pushed in a direction he doesn’t want to take, and if he turns down management opportunities why should he be viewed as lacking drive or not wanting to move forward? Why is management so often the only promotion opportunity?

Let’s be honest – there are not enough management jobs to reward everyone or move everyone up that ladder. And there are star employees who lack the natural skills and the desire to manage people. Yet these people bring great value to the organization. They have institutional knowledge and technical skills that keep our businesses moving. But when the company fails to reward their contribution, it becomes more and more challenging for them to stay with the company, and to stay at the top of their game. Do we still send our long term individual contributors for training to stay cutting edge in their skills? Or do we think that you can’t teach and old dog new tricks, and expect long-time employees to be coasting through their career? Even worse, do we try to push them out so we can get less experienced employees who can do the same work for less pay?

HR, we need to be more creative with our career paths. We need to value people who want to stay in individual contributor roles with tangible support. Highly skilled individual contributors can be mentors, trainers, take the lead on process documentation, and be integral in brainstorming how to improve the systems where they hold expertise. They can lead those improvement processes, and be change agents when they are part of the team. You don’t need to have a management role to be a leader – let’s find ways to let individual contributors lead.

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