Can I gracefully exit a management role? Should I?
June 14, 2014 7:14 PM   Subscribe

I took a management role at a fast-growing startup for a mix of good and bad reasons. Eight months into the new role, I'm realizing my boss & I have very different styles, that the expected "management perspective" and accompanying behaviors feel itchy. I don't want to leave the place — I just don't think I like a situation where I'm constantly managing up, down and sideways. How can I get out of this without having to leave altogether?

I've been with the company for a couple of years. I was hired on the basis of my mix of technical and creative skills. After a period, I moved to another team where I could focus more on my creative side. About a year after that, I was approached to manage my former team. I accepted because I wasn't thrilled with the state of the team I'd moved to, had some ideas about how to improve things for the team that needed a manager, and initially felt very comfortable with the person who was going to be my new boss. I was also flattered to be considered for a management role and thought of it as a chance to leverage my experience and build something better than what I could as an individual contributor.

This was not, to be clear, a case of me being disciplined: I performed very well on both teams, my evaluations reflected high performance, and the CEO herself consulted with me a few times because she said I had a reputation as a leader in the company.

Since then, it's been a mixed bag.

I've been put on point for a few cross-departmental things that were already far along in flight and causing tension between teams when I arrived. There's way more skulking around and game-playing than I'm used to or can muster any empathy for, and I'm expected to take a pretty hard line with my counterparts, which is not my natural state for dealing with people. I'm inclined toward looking for compromise, but it feels like that's perceived as weakness in this setting. When I try to take a harder line my discomfort manifests in ways that I feel like are costing me the goodwill I built up over a long period of being a quiet, accommodating, reliably collaborative person.

My team is great, but I'm in a classic "generalist leading specialists" situation where it sometimes feels hard to do much more than offer a broad organizational perspective and some encouragement. It's hard to get up in front of them sometimes, especially as the company moves more and more to hiring specialists over the older model of generalists like me.

And I don't think my boss quite understood what he'd be getting. He's a very quick, opinionated thinker who's been around our industry for a while and seems to know what he thinks about just about everything. I'm smart enough, but I struggled in early adulthood with undiagnosed ADHD and I've adopted a very deliberate, controlled, outlook to regulate myself. I tend to consider things at a slow simmer, forming opinions slowly: Everywhere else I've ever worked, I've spent a good, long time listening and letting my opinions form behind my back, with my teammates repeatedly saying things like "it's like you just suddenly appeared in our midst — we always knew you were there before, but had no idea what was going on in there."

I've been called a "utility infielder," perhaps because I prefer to spend my time listening and figuring out how to help when things come up. I don't think that works for him, and he periodically comments on how quiet I am and how I should speak up more (as has another senior manager he's good friends with). I also think he sees me as too unopinionated, and he's snapped at me or given me pretty exasperated looks when I haven't had an opinion about something right away. He's kind enough to me in general, has sincerely asked my advice about some sensitive matters in a way that suggests he sees some value in how I think about things, and he's offered good feedback about my people management style — I did do a decent job of settling my team down after a protracted period of neglect and mismanagement — but it's hard to forget an early conversation where he talked about people managers as "*just* people managers." If I had to sum it up, I'd say there's some part of him that knows he ought to be listening to people like me, even if he can't understand how on earth anyone like me actually functions.

When I first started at this place, there wasn't any clear progression for individual contributors. You just got chucked into cubeland and sort of found yourself in the middle of an undifferentiated crowd of other individual contributors along with a management layer comprised of people who'd made their names being microcelebrities in our space (and who have slowly been moving on or being marginalized now that more experienced managers are being hired in from the outside).

I'm beginning to think that perhaps management is a bad idea for me, at least in this setting and with this boss, and that the pay cut I think I'd be in for wouldn't be as bad as waking up every morning thinking about what confrontations I'm expected to engage in, or whether I'm appearing decisive or opinionated enough, or what I'm going to tell a team of people who are way more proficient and experienced than I am in their field. And I like where I work in general. I'm a firm believer in what we're making, I love the people I work with when I don't feel like I'm sitting across a Panmunjom conference table from them, I've learned a lot about our niche I'd hate to give up, and I'd like to actually vest.

I've just never seen anyone get out of a management role who's been allowed to walk out and find an individual contributor role on their own terms. I have the feeling it must happen sometimes, it's just outside of my experience and I don't have a model for how it would work, how to have that conversation, or whether it's even a good idea long term (or if it's in the category of things like accepting a counter offer after looking around the market—where you're running a high risk of becoming a dead person walking even if you get what you want in the short term).

I also don't know what this will mean if I need to go outside the company. I get that there are professional managers who're fine moving around between industries or spaces and just showing up on day one with a sense of entitlement to lead. That's not me, and I don't know what it does to my hireability to leave so soon after a promotion looking for a position lower than what I have.

I don't know what to do, I don't really have any mentors I can turn to, and the people I'm closest to in my personal life don't seem to understand the idea of doing anything besides figuring out how to get promoted.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you discussed this with your boss? Most of what you point to seems to be related to that relationship.
posted by mynameisluka at 7:37 PM on June 14, 2014

Have you asked for any feedback from your boss? I would start there and see where the conversation naturally evolves.
posted by sid at 8:23 PM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with talking to your boss first. It seems like a lot of your worries are about what your boss thinks of you, but it's hard to tell how much credence these worries have.

For instance, with your boss acting irritated or telling you to be more combative - it seems like you're worrying that this is just the tip of the iceberg of his feelings about you as an employee, but it may just be that he's one of those people/managers who says what he's thinking and that's it. My current boss is like that - if he has a problem with something I'm doing, he just says so right away, we address it, and then it's over. During the first few months of working with him, I did sort of wonder if those brief corrective conversations were indicative of deeper problems, but after a while, I realized that he was just of the "address-it-and-move-on" school of management.

Similarly, I wonder if there's a way that you can take on more of the role your manager wants you to play without becoming someone you don't like. It is absolutely possible to make your point and be persistent about it without being a jerk. The key IME is putting the work first. Don't make it about the people - make it about the problem you're trying to solve. Sometimes you do have to argue a bit to get things right.

I feel for you, because I too am a fairly new manager in a creative/technical field with a boss who wants me to advocate very strongly for my department/team. Sometimes I agree with him about his points, and so I will go into a meeting knowing what I want to get out of it. Sometimes he wants me to take a hard line in a situation where I either A. don't think it's important enough to bother or B. think that doing so would damage a relationship that I need to keep. If it's A, then frankly, I usually just "yes" my boss, make the case somewhat weakly, and then just tell him we didn't "win." Or I might ask him to explain why this is so important to him. If it's B, then I will tell him honestly that I don't think it's worth the fight and why. It sounds like your boss does appreciate a spine and independent thought, so he SHOULD respect this, even if he doesn't like it.

One thing I have had to get comfortable with in this new role is that not everyone is going to be happy with me all the time, including my boss! And that's OK, as long as the people who matter are happy with me overall. I'm guessing from the content of your question that you're female (sorry if I got that wrong!), and I probably don't need to tell you that this is harder for women than it is for men, due to all sorts of gender socialization and workplace dynamics.

As for your initial question about moving from management, I have seen it happen, usually in one of two ways. The first is an explicit downshift. The second is someone moving into a high-status contributor role, usually because they have some sort of special expertise to offer. I have seen both done successfully, but the former is usually a bit rockier.
posted by lunasol at 8:54 PM on June 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

So, it is perfectly doable to go back to being an IC, assuming you are a very good IC which from everything you've said here sounds like you are. But I think that you are laboring in the doldrums that every new manager goes through, and you should consider sticking it out and pushing through this patch if you think management might hold some interest for you.

First of all, managing up, down, and sideways is expected of EVERY senior employee. ICs don't get a pass from this if they want to get anywhere. Being able to influence people that have control over you, and your peers, is a critical skill that successful people have to learn at some point in their career. And it takes a long time to learn, much longer than 8 months (I'm still working on all three of those areas several years in).

Your description makes it seem like you are in fact a superstar. No one puts a new manager on multiple critical cross-department projects without having some faith that they're going to make the project better. I'm reading a lot of assuming that game-playing etc is needed, but most companies prefer managers that are good at finding compromise which it sounds like is one of your skills. You need to fight for your people, yes, but that doesn't mean you're playing a zero sum game with the rest of the company!

OK, so as to generalists managing specialists... here's the thing, it doesn't matter. You do not have to be better than someone at the exact specific thing they do to be their manager, otherwise CEOs wouldn't exist and every company would be run by a dysfunctional committee. What makes you successful as a manager is not the same thing that makes you successful as an IC, and that is OK.

I could go on and on and on, but let's cut to the chase. I really encourage you to sit down with your manager and ask him how you're doing, and tell him your fears and insecurities. The first few years of management are HARD in a way that no one tells you. You've given up the expertise that you may have fought hard to achieve and you're back to beginner land because a lot of the job is new to you. That's ok and it does not mean you are doing a bad job. In fact I suspect you are probably doing a kick-ass job. And sensitive managers, those looking for compromise, those who are in the role not because they MUST LEAD but because others look up to them naturally, those are the leaders that we need. You can do this, if you want to do it. Really.

Feel free to me-mail me at any time if you're interested in talking more.
posted by ch1x0r at 5:00 PM on June 15, 2014

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