How do I progress at work, when I don't want to manage people?
February 19, 2017 8:53 AM   Subscribe

I'm a manager of things, and that works for me. My next step up the corporate ladder is to manage people, and I don't want to do that. I have ambition, just not in that direction. Have I hit my ceiling?

I started at my office as a lowly temp; I was hired permanently almost immediately, and progressed up the ladder over the course of 5 years. I now have "manager" in my title, but I don't manage people. My current role is managing projects designed to increase the quality of patient care, and monitoring and reporting on outcomes of those projects. There's significant strategy and writing involved, with a side of project management.

I have one more promotion left, to the "senior" level of my current role, before I hit what I've been seeing as my promotion cap before people-management. I expect to get that promotion in the next few months. But what do I strive for after that?

I like my job, I like the people I work with, I like all my benefits and perks. For instance, I'm a 100% teleworker, and I would give up some of my blood kin before I gave up that benefit. But the next possible level of promotion in my organizational structure would be to take on the role my (excellent, awesome) manager currently holds - and I don't want her job, even a little bit. Not to mention the fact that she's extremely unlikely to leave it any time soon. And if I took on that role, telework would go out the window. Our company requires significant office time from managers of people - even when most of the people they manage are teleworkers.

I don't really want to manage people, but I don't want to stagnate, either. I know it's possible at this company to land in a role and sit there for years and years, just gathering your yearly merit increase but never getting promoted. I don't necessarily want that. But I don't want to be in charge of people, either, and I don't think I'd be particularly good at it.

I'm in a great place with this organization. Due to the role I had when I started, I have unprecedented visibility and a great working relationship with the highest levels of my department, most of the executive staff, and both the professional respect and confidence of our CEO. I'm well-liked and seen as an asset to the organization by just about everybody.

So I could go further up the ladder if I wanted to - but the only further up I can see is a job I don't want. So what's my next move? I don't want to leave the company, but I don't want to just sit there for years and stagnate, either. If the time to leave does come someday, I want my resume to show steady progression - not years and years at the same level.

(Note - I know about, but my hit rate for responses there is 0%, so I'm asking the OTHER smart people I know.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
You could try to develop some sort of specialization in your organization, by volunteering for particularly challenging projects in areas others shy away from, seeking extra training etc., and try to position yourself as a "senior advisor/project manager" or something like that.

I have had some success doing that in my own organization, although I do manage a project-oriented team. In my case, it made sense to just start orienting myself in that direction, and create a de facto specialist role for myself, without engaging in big picture discussions with management. Then, when the time came to look at moving on or up, I pointed out the valuable role I was playing and offered to keep doing it in exchange for recognition of my status. I suspect that my mangers would have balked if they had been asked to sign on to such a plan in advance, but they soon got used to having certain functions performed very efficiently (because specialization) and saw the value.

There are a couple of caveats, though: you have to identify a true need, work very hard, and accept limitations to your advancement in the hierarchy. In my case, I have no interest in corporate power and responsibility, so being "mistress of my (substantive) domain" is fine with me. it does burn once in a while, though, when some shiny new corporate figure comes along and gets to dictate what we do, but the pain does not last long and in my view, the tradeoff is worth it.
posted by rpfields at 9:21 AM on February 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

In government, there are what we can special advisor roles. These are senior ranks of people but who are not responsible for managing others, for whatever reason. Typically, they're "subject matter experts" (SME), people who really understand one aspect of the work really well. Technical or legal specialist knowledge is the easiest route up this path. However, there are also folks who specialize in aboriginal affairs, for example, spending their careers going from community to community, building trust relationships which they then act as advisors for native and community relations back to the department. We have people who, in private industry would be call compliance, or regulatory affairs, who specialize in knowing what the legal requirements for a particular activity are, say building a road, understanding not just the building code, but also the codes that all levels of governments have, planning, environmental, etc... We have people who specialize in health and safety, in quality management, and so on. There are as many niches as there are needs really.

In short, pick an activity that your organization does and do a deep dive into it. Become that person that knows more about it than anyone else, that has all the contacts, and knows how to get stuff done quickly. Become an expert, sign up for meetings and try to develop cross-industry contacts (these really help with jobs too). Start looking at the profiles of folks on Linked-in, conference bios, etc... of people whose career path looks interesting. Take them for drinks if you can.

Think long-term about consultancy as an end goal. They are generally the top end of the SME scale, and can command very nice paycheques if they're in demand. Mentoring or employment with an established, reputable consultant can be a viable way forward in the mid-term. But use where you are now in the immediate future as the place to put those building blocks, of learning, of network building into place.
posted by bonehead at 9:21 AM on February 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

Can you get training and certificates like six sigma process improvement?

Then can you talk to your manager and take on more wide ranging projects, large in scope and impact. She might be relieved to know you're not after her job.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:23 AM on February 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

Have I hit my ceiling?

To be blunt, yes. No matter how good you are at what you do, you're doing one person's worth of work. Your manager is wielding a team to get [number of people]'s worth of work done. That's worth more to me and always will be.

I mean, you could switch to a niche incrementally more impressive than you are now - QA, analysis, process improvement, researching innovative new things, training program? - but until you're willing to amplify your effectiveness and command an army to get your vision accomplished, you're going to keep hitting the same ceiling. At best, you're going to be an expert advisor to the person who IS getting it done.
posted by ctmf at 9:43 AM on February 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

Special projects, internal consulting and strategy. That is the role I've moved into, by being a SME, as @bonehead suggests. I have been very actively avoiding managing people throughout my career. I do manage (very capable) interns on occasion and people on individual projects where I need help, but have no direct reports. My management has been on board with my interest to not manage people and helps me find a way to fit in with the company but also support my career goals.
posted by chiefthe at 1:37 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

The answers above are good, and I would also recommend thinking about what makes you dislike the idea staying at the next level of promotion - "stagnating." If that's the job you enjoy doing, and you're comfortable with the limited raises you'd get there, I don't see anything wrong with remaining at that level indefinitely. I work in a field where that's common. I've been at my job in a law office for 3+ years, there are about 15 attorneys, and my first promotion would take at least 10 more years, if not longer.
posted by benbenson at 2:33 PM on February 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have one more promotion left, to the "senior" level of my current role, before I hit what I've been seeing as my promotion cap before people-management. I expect to get that promotion in the next few months. But what do I strive for after that?

Currently, the next promotional step (at your company) is a people-management position; meaning it's how your particular corporation is structured. Not good or bad, it just is.

I gather a) your goal is to remain at technical/expert/advisor; meaning a non-people manager, b) you're concerned about your resume staying fresh. So, research skills and training requirements for job postings related to your position and industry. Complete those types of training and certs to enhance your knowledge level and marketability, if you were to move on in the future.
posted by mountainblue at 2:52 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

What @mountainblue said and also, look at other industries related to yours and how you might become marketable to those industries.

I spent the first 25 years or so of my career working in the electronic test industry, developing products like oscilloscopes and spectrum analyzers. Towards the end of my time in that industry, I was in a MBA program where I had to do an analysis of my industry. I realized that electronic test was going to be consolidating and shrinking and that is exactly what happened. I looked around at industries that had growth potential and that fit my skillset (software engineer). Enterprise software was one of the industries I targeted and I was able to laterally moved into that field. Now, I'm building my experience in that industry and, in particular, cloud-native software which will hopefully carry me forward until the time I no longer want to work.

It may be the case that your industry and company never change throughout the course of your career, but I'd be willing to be that something does change and better to be prepared for what might happen that caught unaware.
posted by elmay at 3:19 PM on February 19, 2017

If you have good relations with your manager and their manager, then the first thing you should do is set up meetings with them to talk about your five-year plan or whatever. You can make it clear you're not interested in leaving any time soon, but you're interested in figuring out where you should be aiming at next and see if they have more visibility as to what sort of position you can target, or if there's something new you can work with them to carve out. Or they might be blunt with you and agree you're really at the cap, in which case you can figure out what you want to do from there.

No matter how good you are at what you do, you're doing one person's worth of work. Your manager is wielding a team to get [number of people]'s worth of work done. That's worth more to me and always will be.

This is pretty common thinking and although I think it's silly as written, there is something useful behind it. As you get more senior (title-wise), you need to work on bigger projects, not just get better at working on your existing-sized projects. The implication there is eventually you have to work on projects where you're not doing all the work yourself, you're just doing the core parts and working with other people to get the rest done. Yeah? Now, the reason why the quote is silly is because the important thing isn't the number of people involved, it's the size of the project. Senior people work on bigger ideas, and pick up additional people as required, not the other way around.

But I'm guessing based on your description of your current position that you're already comfortable working with other people and farming out bits of the work, you just (I guess) don't want to do manager stuff like 1-on-1s and performance reviews. So can you start pitching bigger ideas? If you can keep increasing the scale of the ideas you're working with, that is a really solid basis for creating a new level to be promoted to. If you can't, either because you can't come up with them or someone else is already working on it, then that's a good sign you should start looking for an exit.
posted by inkyz at 4:22 PM on February 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

It depends on where you work, but some companies promote based on "band" levels. Basically, you can keep on doing whatever and your band level indicates your expertise. I've worked at companies that work this way, and ones that don't understand the concept at all, where, unfortunately, I've had to pretend to want to be a manager at some point in the future to be considered ambitious.
posted by xammerboy at 11:01 PM on February 19, 2017

It is worth examining why you don't want to manage people. Managing people is super inconvenient at first, but it can be learned with practice and will give you lots of leverage.
If done right, you can chose what you spend your time on. Don't like dealing with issue x or activity y? Find someone better suited to it and delegate it do them. The fact that you know your strengths might make you a pretty good manager.
posted by clark at 5:52 AM on February 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's completely OK to not want to manage people. Get a job with the federal government. Our culture is a little different. It's not up or out where I work, and we also reward people for technical expertise. In the ideal scenario you'd get two salary bumps per year (some of this will depend on the agency and whether pay freezes are real, we had three years with no COLA under Obama and it's unclear what might happen under this guy). One raise every January and a step increase on your anniversary, the purpose of the step increase being 'hey you found your sweet spot and are content to stay put, here's a little incentive.'
posted by fixedgear at 8:38 AM on February 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I don't want to question the premise too much, but I agree with clark and fixedgear too. It IS perfectly ok to not want to be a manager; I have several people who are doing exactly what they want to and I'd be lost without them. It's fine. I can live with that. But if instead of one 'Dave' I could have Dave make THREE MORE Daves, trained by Dave and steered and mentored by Dave, I would take that in a second. And if Dave, while he was doing that, could also kind of make this other team that isn't doing so hot get some Dave-ness infused in them... It's not that Dave's doing bad, it's that I start thinking about how great it could be and feeling somewhat disappointed.

But more to the point of your question, it's not so much a "up or out" scenario in your company it seems (or in mine). But if you do ever want to apply for higher level jobs in the future, at some point your longevity in your current slot stops being an advantage and starts being suspicious. People who know you will know the score. People who don't know you very well will read your resume and think Red Flag! I'm going to have to probe about that in the interview. And still be a disadvantage, because "managing people" is a learned skill you haven't been practicing this whole time, when you could have been.

Even in the federal government, those long-time high-step people have made their choice more than they think. If a GS-10 step 10 suddenly applies for one of my supervisor positions, after 15 years of not applying when they could have, they've got some convincing to do that the hot-running 10/3 or 4 doesn't.

What about asking for a single assistant to manage? Get your feet wet in as low-risk a way as possible. It's not as bad as you think, and your manager will help you learn, I promise.
posted by ctmf at 9:43 AM on February 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Speaking from experience in fed/gov promotions, movement up the ladder comes with proving your command of people and processes due to their unique interconnectivity. Sometimes referred to as the 'whole-person concept'.

From your post, it appears you have a level of success with the portion of process (strategy/PM).

For the people piece, I go back to how you've described your favorable, professional working relationships at the company. This would mean you've made solid connections with other people in the effort of accomplishing your duties and responsibilities.

Generally speaking, management is tracking numerical metrics and running programs. Yes, you added several times not wanting to manage people. This points to the notion of supervising or leading someone (others); the guidance and direction of people. If you are somewhat open to it, I would urge further exploration of supervising/leading others to round out the people piece.

Think about where you want your career to ultimately go, up the ladder. I would suggest higher-level professionals who possess the ability to lead people and processes enjoy greater successes and rewards.
posted by mountainblue at 12:38 PM on February 20, 2017

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