How have you approached moving up versus staying put in your job?
June 18, 2019 1:52 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious to hear what your thoughts are one's skills as an individual contributor versus climbing the ladder into management.

For most of my two-decade career, I've been content as an individual contributor, happy to just get better at doing what I was trained to do. I wasn't driven by status, and without high expectations, I was happy with the steady cashflow and consistent hours of a dividend-producing value job over spectacular growth.

But after 20 years, I'm also working with a much younger cohort, and I've seen friends rise in the management ranks and get more status and pay.

On the other hand, I've seen some climb into the management ranks, flame out, and then struggle to find work because while individual contributors form the base of the pyramid, job opportunities narrow the further up you go.

I've known people who naturally wanted to advance, and then found themselves without work for a long period of time.

I also know once you step into these management jobs, your schedule is more under your control (rather than working the set and steady schedules of an individual contributor) -- but your time is also at the whims of your manager.

And because management jobs are more scarce, I've seen more toadying and sudden whiplashes in schedules on those levels. It also seems to become more about perception management than productivity. Also, once you enter management, it's all about the hustle, staying afloat, or looking for that next foothold to climb.

I work in the media and technology fields, and that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

What has your thinking been about moving between these two levels? Is my paradigm correct? Are there other ways to look at this?
posted by Borborygmus to Work & Money (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think a lot of the issues and benefits are a company-by-company (or agency-by-agency) difference, and can change with new management, adding to general uncertainty.

But generally speaking, management definitely isn't for everyone. You can be a great project manager, and a terrible staff manager, or vis-versa. Or you could be great at both.

Depending on workloads, staffing levels, upper management decisions and client directions, managers could simply manage people all the time, or may be making bigger decisions in projects and programs.

Personally, I moved into management (in a wholly unrelated field, and on the public side) in part because that was the only way to move up in my agency. I'm enjoying some aspects of management, and I've been praised for how I handled a personnel issue, which made me feel like I'm not a bad fit for this management position. But my internal structure is pretty fixed and reliable (I say, heading into an agency-wide reorganization), and my supervisor is reliable in their direction and guidance, which means not a lot of uncertainty in my work. At the same time, I would enjoy having to deal with less staff management and office bureaucracy, and be able to focus more on projects and program management.

TL;DR: it really depends on what you're moving into, and how that looks to you.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:24 PM on June 18, 2019

From the technology perspective, you may find this article interesting.
posted by elmay at 2:38 PM on June 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

I moved into management in (natch) management consulting. I was at a big 4 firm where the model is basically up-or-out (i.e. if you aren't moving up the ladder, you are being counseled out). Fairly early on I was managing teams of consultants and analysts, and I've been in management ever since. I've always had the kind of work ethic that helped me get the button-pushing parts of my delivery work done with extra cycles to put on things like recruiting, business development, organizational effectiveness, building and delivering training, it just always seemed like I was destined for more than an IC role would provide for me to do.

Here's the thing: managing people sucks, but only if you care too much.

In the first half of my career, I gave way, way too many fucks. I gave a fuck about anything and everything. It was stress-inducing and largely unproductive. Then one day one of my account leads sat me down and explained that he was successful in getting to where he was because he just didn't care as much as most people did. This was transformational for me - I stopped giving too many fucks. I hardly give a fuck about anything anymore, and when I do, I often am able to slow myself down and ask myself why I am giving a fuck about this. (ref: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck)

I also learned somewhere along the way that it's important to have a positive outlook. People like being around people who are upbeat and encouraging. I'm a naturally pessimistic person, and one of my managers once shared a quote from Colin Powell with me: Optimism is a force multiplier. It stuck, literally - I wrote it on the sticky part of a post-it and it's stayed on my laptop screen margin ever since. This AskMe comment actually changed my life in this regard. I'm still a sarcastic son of a bitch on the inside, but in terms of how I engage with my clients and colleagues, I'm the fun guy to be around. Self deprecating humor helps a lot here ("Who made this guy a manager???").

Getting some therapy and dealing with my anxiety and getting some new tools in my psychological bag was the third leg of my personal stool. I literally now sit in meetings and feel like I have a Jedi-mind-trick level skill. I watch people get all wound up about stuff in ways I used to, and then I can take them aside and break down what just happened and coach them on how to tweak their approach and then watch the light-bulb turn on in their brain. It's crazy. Parts of The Four Agreements were very helpful here, in particular "Don't take anything personally" and "Don't make assumptions." When people act up, it's just them trying to tell me something about themselves, it's not about me. Also: getting my Mr. Roger's tattoo to remind me that I want to spend the second half of my life loving everyone around me just the way they are. (Also also: having my accident last year really drove home the bit from that book about how today could really be my last day here.)

I guess what I'm saying is that there are ways to hack management so that it's not an endless slog of suck, which it definitely has the potential to be. It can turn people into dicks, or magnify the dickishness of an already dysfunctional / broken person.

Being nice, it turns out, can go a long way. But it's hard work for some of us.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:17 PM on June 18, 2019 [12 favorites]

Management is a trap, don’t fall for it. You don’t make a whole lot more than an experienced IC, but the stress is way worse and there’s far less job security. Instead of being judged on your ability to code, you’ll be judged on how much people like you and how good you are at convincing people to do stuff. You’ll be expected to stay knowledgeable about the technology and codebase, but you won’t be given the time to do that. There’s a shortage of engineers, so unless you work at Google or Facebook, your team will be chronically short-staffed as engineers leave for better paying jobs and candidates reject your offers in favor of better-paying companies. Plus every minute you spend doing manager work is a minute that you aren’t spending keeping your engineering skills sharp.

Management is not career advancement. Engineers get paid really well these days, and most companies have advanced titles you can earn (e.g. Staff Engineer, Principal, etc.) without going the management route.

I wouldn’t go the manager track unless for some reason you really, really, really want to be a people manager.
posted by panama joe at 3:53 PM on June 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

I work the technical side as a mechanical engineer. When I was sounded out for a management track position, I told them in no uncertain terms that I was not interested in that career path. I like the feeling of ownership I get as I design, build, and test things, and there is ample room for innovation and learning new things in my position. I've been doing this stuff for 25 years now, so I am a resource for the newer hires. That is status, of a sort. I too have seen people jump from the technical track to the management side. Some have done well, others not so much. Personally, I don't understand the attraction. Management clearly isn't for everyone, because it certainly isn't for me. The management track where I work seems to have a greater potential for quicker advancement, but the company does have a solid technical track career path.
posted by coppertop at 8:09 PM on June 18, 2019

What I like about management is the scope to fix things and get more things done because I have more resource at my disposal. I also enjoy developing people. In my field, moving up the ladder means moving into management but also moving into a trusted adviser type role. I really enjoy that.

Alison from Ask a Manager, described being an 'aggressively superb manager' like this.

set clear expectations and goals and help people meet them; give lots of positive, sincere feedback when people do well and clear, actionable feedback when they should be doing things differently; meet regularly with people one-on-one to debrief recent work and problem-solve; address problems forthrightly; be kind but hold people accountable; talk to people about their own goals for their work and themselves and help them put together plans to achieve them; solicit input and give it a fair hearing; share your own thought process and how you’re making decisions; and talk explicitly about the kind of culture you want and enlist people in sharing their ideas about how to build it.

If that sounds appealing to you now, then try it. I enjoy it, even though 10 years ago I thought I would always hate it.
posted by plonkee at 12:20 PM on June 19, 2019 [3 favorites]

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