Some workers are imagining new ways to get ahead
When Daniel was promoted to a people management position, it felt like the natural next step for his career. He’d been working as a software developer for four years, and he’d seen countless colleagues follow a similar path. People who excelled as individual contributors (ICs) became people managers. That’s how moving up the career ladder worked.
Some of Daniel’s new responsibilities as a manager were exactly what he’d expected: preparing for one-on-one meetings with his direct reports, following up on action items, checking in on the daily progress of his team, and helping scope out work for the next few weeks or quarter. Very quickly, however, it became clear that there was also a large part of the job Daniel wasn’t prepared for.
“I realized that in my previous role, I was shielded from a lot of the things managers had to deal with,” says Daniel, who asked to use a pseudonym for this story. “I had no idea how combative day-to-day interactions could be, and I was surprised by the amount of change management that was going on.”
Over the next year, Daniel gained a lot of work experience, and one very important realization: he did not want to be a people manager. He’s not alone. A 2014 study found that only about one-third of workers surveyed were interested in management. And as the importance of happiness at work continues to rise—not to mention the ever-widening range of opportunities afforded by remote work—fewer workers are willing to pursue career paths that aren’t a good fit just for the sake of advancement.
When it comes to career development, professional progress and management experience often go hand-in-hand. Being a manager, however, often demands not only a specific skillset, but also a keen interest in people development that transcends expertise in a given function or industry. It’s not a path for everyone—so how can those who opt-out find their own way forward?
Expectations vs. reality
Daniel’s realization that he wasn’t well-suited to being a people manager didn’t happen all at once, but one incident did turn on a lightbulb he couldn’t switch off.
As he tells it, “I started in the role in October. When December pay and bonus discussions came around, I had to tell someone who had only been reporting to me for two months that he wasn't getting a bonus—something that traditionally everyone got.”
He took days to prepare to break this news to his direct report. “I was quite anxious about it,” he says. “I thought about it a lot outside of work, and once I delivered the news, I felt so terrible. I wanted him to do well and I wanted him to get a bonus, but the previous 10 months hadn’t taken place under my supervision, and I ultimately wasn't the decider of the bonus amounts.”
After this incident, Daniel couldn’t ignore just how much he was carrying on his shoulders, both on and off the job. “I found I was taking on my direct reports’ stress when they struggled to hit deadlines,” he says, and he was finding it difficult to participate when meetings got combative. “I found it really taxing. I'm an introverted person and naturally avoid conflict, but there was no way to opt out when conflict did occur.”
This situation highlights a common problem for ICs who take on management roles. ICs aren’t necessarily required to exhibit the sort of traits we associate with great people managers—such as conflict management, coaching, proactive communication, and the ability to empower others effectively. They’re promoted because they’re good at their jobs, but paradoxically, they’re not always trained well to succeed in their new role. For many, it can feel like being thrown to the wolves.
Without proper training, people can struggle to adjust—and feel like they’re failing.
A 2014 study found that only about one-third of workers surveyed were interested in management.
Too many hats
Jo Gale didn’t become a manager at a global fast fashion retailer on purpose; it was part of the visual merchandiser job she was hired to do.
She did love the creative aspects of her job—she had gone to school for textile design, and liked the challenge of making displays look great—but the management part felt a little more difficult to get used to. “In the fast fashion world, those companies make money by getting people to do multiple jobs,” she says, “So I was all of a sudden in charge of staff in addition to my merchandising responsibilities.”
From the jump, this aspect of the job didn’t feel like a good fit. “I came into it with a kind of punk rock attitude that just never went away,” she says. “Being expected to discipline people and be responsible for reports and payroll didn’t feel natural, and I never loved doing it.”
Unfortunately, separating the two aspects of the job—the visual merchandising part she loved and the people management part that she didn’t—wasn’t an option for Gale. “There was a sort of built-in management trajectory that they envisioned everyone being on, and people’s needs weren’t really considered as individuals,” she says.
Herein lies another common problem with traditional career paths. Too often, getting to take on more responsibility is bundled with management duties. In this scenario, people are given little choice: either get used to managing people or find another job entirely.
Rethinking the ladder
One obvious solution is to offer people who want to level-up their careers more than one way forward. As someone who had ambivalent feelings about managing people herself, this is something Jes Ellacott thought about quite often during her time leading a content and creative team at the SaaS company Fiix.
“I think we’re still stuck in this antiquated way of thinking about careers as a ladder,” explains Ellacott, “where career growth is just about moving from one rung to the next—a linear path from individual contributor to management.”
“It’s ironic,” she continues, “because I’ve heard so many higher-ranking folks in tech lamenting the fact that ‘Everyone wants to be a manager, no one wants to be a do-er.’ Well, what do you expect? We incentivize employees to pursue management jobs, both financially and in terms of how we talk about career development.”
Ellacott suggests an ideal scenario would be “one that offers career paths with multiple potential branches and incentive plans that focus on depth of skill as well as people management paths.”
Sarah Bugeja, the VP of marketing for social media management platform Later, estimates that about 30% of her direct reports throughout her career have explicitly not wanted to grow into people managers. Rather than see that as a detriment, she’s always enjoyed the challenge of finding alternate growth opportunities for them instead. The key, she says, is making sure the conversations are honest and two-sided; the best solutions are often products of collaboration and outside-the-box thinking.
“It should always start with a conversation exploring other options together,” she says. “Sometimes [this] means creating opportunities that haven’t existed up until now.”
“I think we’re still stuck in this antiquated way of thinking about careers as a ladder.”
Getting off the management track
For both Daniel and Gale, the unexpected—and unwanted—pressure of trying to thrive in a management position continued to build. And without the support they needed to thrive in their new roles, that pressure came to a head.
For Daniel, this moment came after a long internal battle. “Initially, I tried to adapt,” he recalls. “I read some books, which did help with the change management aspects of my role, but not the combative interactions I kept getting thrown into.” To deal with the stress from that aspect of the job, he tried to lean into self-care. “I got massages more frequently,” he says. “I took a Friday off here and there to give myself more time to decompress. I tried float tanks to try to clear my mind.”
Eventually, however, the truth was undeniable. Being a manager made Daniel miserable, and he didn’t want to do it anymore. He asked to go back to the IC role he’d previously had. Today, he’s been back in that role for three years.
For Gale, her experience as a manager ended up putting her on another career path entirely. One day, while sitting in the office with other managers, they got to talking about what else they wanted to do in their careers. “None of us were happy there, and someone asked, ‘If you could have one other job, what would it be?’ And I said, ‘I'd be a yoga instructor,’” she recalls. “Something clicked in my head.”
It was a turning point for Gale. She trained to become a movement instructor, and is now the owner of The Move Room in Hamilton, Ontario. Being a business owner requires some management duties, of course—but knowing herself and how she likes to work helped Gale be intentional in the way she set up her studio. The business model works more like a co-working space, where instructors can rent out time and space at the studio versus being hired as a member of her team.
Daniel has no regrets about his own move, either. “My happiness at work is now more of a product of my own actions,” he says. “Getting work done is up to me.”