This was posted on LinkedIn Pulse a few days ago but wanted it to have a home here as well.
In the modern conception of work, we are incentivized to climb a career ladder where we gain increased responsibilities, higher pay, and ultimately enter into management. This pathway means that for many people they move from doing work they are great at to doing an entirely different type of work without even realizing it. But here’s the thing: being good at doing a specific skill doesn’t mean you would make a good manager. Moving into management requires specific personality traits, skills, and training that is not always instinctual.
In my field, for example, I see a lot of amazing project managers who are great at managing projects. Unfortunately, the career path for a project manager is to go from running one project, to running a larger one, to running a program where you manage other project managers, to eventually becoming the head of delivery, operations, or a managing director. The truth is, though, that there are some project managers who should just keep managing projects and doing an amazing job at that. They should be recognized for their skills and be given increased compensation, but not all of them should manage a program or move up the ladder towards a managing director role. Unfortunately, there is a cultural conception that in order to be seen as being good at what you do, you need to have an increasingly fancy sounding title and move into management. That cultural conception is partly based on what happens in peer networks and can’t be controlled by a single employer, but it is also controlled by the way that organizations compensate and recognize their employes. My advice to employees: know what you love. If it isn’t managing other people, don’t be pressured into following that pathway.
I encounter this problem pretty much every day both with clients I work with and within the agency I work for: people who were probably great at doing their discipline specific job (i.e., amazing designer, fantastic front end developer, great business analyst) who have climbed the ladder too high and are now in a role that is too far away from the things they do really well. This is made worse by the fact that corporate structures are built to reward a move into management. I think this should change. The question is what should organizations do?
Option #1, Create Alternate Progression Pathways:
Take a hard look at your organization and see if you have pathways for progression that reward people who want to pursue a path of increased specialization and skill development within their discipline, as well as pathways for people who are interested in management. If you don’t have both options, you may be setting your employees up to fail. If you do have both pathways, make sure that you provide specific training to those moving into management so that they gain the skills necessary to make the transition. Some key skills that I think all managers need (myself included) are how to prioritize when there are multiple competing projects/crises of seemingly similar magnitude, how to communicate with executive level stakeholders, delegation, stress management techniques, how to keep employees excited and engaged, how to stay connected to the work when you aren’t doing it yourself, and a host of other skills. One thing I highly recommend is making a management playbook that you can share with people who report to you that explains how you like to work (i.e., communication style, expectations around being kept informed about work, any pet peeves, etc).
Option #2, Flatten To Discipline Specific Titles:
This may sound crazy, but it’s possible. Rather than focus on career paths defined by titles, define them by competencies or skills. Build your organization with a skill tagging structure that allows you to identify competencies that team members have, monitor their progression as they gain new skills, and tie these to roles that are meaningful. Taking this approach allows you to stick to generic titles. The more tags you have, the more skills you have in a given area, and the more your path to growth and increased compensation become tied to the work you are actually doing. This requires a different approach to managing your employees and a different structure for your organization. This isn’t a small change, but in the end it could result in huge rewards. This approach is analogous to the current trend among many companies to move towards paid time off programs that are unlimited; it is more self defined and requires employees to invest in the mission of your organization while giving them a chance to feel a sense of ownership of how they progress. This model doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be managers, or creatives, or strategists, or technologists… but it does mean getting rid of ‘Senior’, ‘Director’, ‘Lead’ etc. Forget levels and focus on skills.
Option #3, Keep Your Hierarchy But Increase Transparency:
If you can’t change your organizational structure in the ways described above, the least you should do is be more transparent with employees that they may ‘level’ out at some point in their career; ideally you can make it possible within your organization to have leveling out decoupled from perceptions of weakness or as a limiting factor to compensation increases. This approach necessitates creating compensation structures that allow for people to stay in their optimum role but gain additional financial benefits as they depend their skill sets and tenure. In addition to this, a cultural shift would need to take place so that language around levels and promotions and skills is less focused on titles and more clearly defined as being about the value each individual employee provides to your company’s greater mission.
My basic point to organizations is to take a look at how you structure career development and ensure that you aren’t encouraging your talented employees to move into roles where they will become ineffective. This is easier said than done, but totally possible with the right leadership. For employees, my message is to not be lured into thinking that the path to management is the only option for growth and greater reward – often it is a pathway to unhappiness. I am certain there are other options beyond the three scenarios I outlined above, and can imagine that some of what I’m saying above might be controversial, so let me know what you think. I also recommend you read this other take on the problem with the career ladder.