Why good individual workers are steamrolled into management

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Reluctant manager
Moving up often means becoming a manager, but not everyone wants to do that. How do you progress in a company without being in charge – and can you?

After years working for herself as a learning and development specialist, Kate, 38, was delighted to get a staff job with a major London-based training group last year, working with one of their biggest clients. It was clear to her bosses she was the most experienced and capable person on the team, and they soon came to her with an offer: do you want to run the team? 

Kate, whose surname is being withheld for job-security reasons, was cautious. She was aware the industry was new to her, unlike the 30 people she would manage, and she had no leadership training. “I thought it would be interesting, but I did feel I was steamrolled into it,” she says. 

But she admits the offer was appealing, and she didn’t want to risk turning down a promotion. “It was a position of power; the salary and the benefits doubled what I was on. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a very visible, prominent role. This may be a good area for me to move into.’” 

Kate regretted her decision almost immediately. She says she received no training or support when she stepped up into her new role, and encountered roadblocks when she tried to bring in changes. “I was just constantly firefighting,” she says. She lasted three months as manager before resigning, saying that by the end, the experience had taken a serious toll on her mental health. 

Kate’s experience may be extreme, but it’s not uncommon. In many industries, people who excel at an individual level find themselves on a track to middle or senior management. Some embrace that trajectory, but for others who aren’t so sure it’s the path they want to take, moving into management can be a miserable experience that takes them away from the work they love and into a world in which they feel isolated, inexperienced or unsupported. 

But as companies start taking a more holistic approach to their people policies, experts say they are looking again at whether the traditional career track is the right approach for everyone. That means examining how they can support excellent individuals who don’t want to progress into management – and making sure workers can turn down a promotion to management without damaging career prospects for good. 

Set up to fail? 

Máire Kerrin, founding director of the Work Psychology Group based in Derby, UK, says most professions have tended to have “quite narrow conceptualisations of what progression is”, almost always framed around taking on more responsibilities or supervising others.

If workers excel at their jobs, managers are often keen to promote them - even if it's not what they really want (Credit: Getty)

If workers excel at their jobs, managers are often keen to promote them - even if it's not what they really want (Credit: Getty)

An individual who is “very proficient and capable”, and getting a lot of satisfaction from their role, seems like a logical choice for promotion, she says, particularly if the company wants to hang on to them. Many managers and supervisors also feel a responsibility to elevate anyone who shows potential, says Kerrin – and as Kate found, if someone feels promotion is the only way they’ll ever increase their salary or standing, it’s hard to say no. There is often, after all, a perception that if you're not moving up you're stagnating, or not showing real commitment to the organisation. 

But there have always been those people who are fully committed to their jobs, yet find the idea of a managerial role deeply unappealing. That might be the excellent teacher who can captivate a classroom but not a staffroom, or the sales rep who shines on their own but hates in-office teamwork. Additionally there are those who, while not totally opposed to management, might want to ease their way into it carefully, to see if it’s right for them. 

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the UK-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says problems arise when people “are promoted into managerial roles because of their technical expertise and not because they have necessarily any natural aptitude for managing people”. Most people can become reasonable managers with sufficient training, he says, but there are certainly people who “don't have the aptitude, they don't have the desire” and find people-management skills a real stretch. 

It’s also clear many people who step up into management receive inadequate support: CIPD’s research suggests that only about 40% of line managers ever receive any formalised leadership training. That means, argues Willmott, that some managers “are slightly set up to fail”. 

When they do fail, it can affect both them and their teams. Having an inexperienced and unwilling manager in a post can be hugely destabilising, says Willmott. "The line manager is the lynchpin of organisational culture," he says. The danger with an inexperienced or stressed manager is that they pass that inexperience and stress down the line, so “it becomes part of the organisational culture”.

There are certainly people who 'don't have the aptitude, they don't have the desire’ and find people-management skills a real stretch – Ben Willmott

Kerrin says rather than retaining talent, promoting people who are unsure about stepping up and then failing to support them can mean, like Kate, that they’ll decide to leave. “It's very difficult to go back within an organisation and say actually, ‘No, I don't want this new role’,” explains Kerrin. In this worst-case scenario, it means the skillset that originally made that person so valuable is entirely lost to the company. 

Alternative career tracks 

Instead of losing valuable people because there’s only one rigidly structured way of progressing, Willmott believes companies should focus on designing jobs around people and their particular strengths. 

In fact, says Kerrin, organisations are starting to think very seriously about just this, including how to incentivise valuable employees who don’t want to join the “talent juggernaut” of promotions. They’re starting to recognise that “there may be other ways that they can contribute to organisations, where they're still learning and growing”. 

The tech world has led the charge on this, with many tech firms developing Individual Contributor pathways for people who want to grow within their role and the organisation, but not manage people. US-based cloud computing company Rackspace, for example, runs a Technical Career Track which enables its most valuable programming staff to rise to executive positions and salaries, without having to give up the hands-on work they love, or take on managerial tasks they hate.

Some companies have created new career pathways for valuable employees who don't want to climb the ladder the traditional way (Credit: Getty)

Some companies have created new career pathways for valuable employees who don't want to climb the ladder the traditional way (Credit: Getty)

Companies such as US-based software firm Hyland have also explored ways of helping employees who want to grow within the company but not move up the leadership chain, making it easier to make lateral moves instead, or to receive salary increases for achievements other than promotion. 

But Kerrin says the idea of non-traditional career pathways is still very much a developing area for businesses, in part because it presents a difficult juggling act. The promise of an accelerated career path can be a major draw, particularly in graduate recruitment, she says; companies can send mixed messages by simultaneously telling staff “actually, if you just want to stay in a particular function and not move across the business, that’s OK, too”. She says that message needs to be carefully managed so companies aren’t “shooting themselves in the foot”. 

‘The hardest job’ 

If you don’t want to be a manager, Kerrin says it’s important to have an "honest conversation upfront” with your boss, rather than feeling manoeuvred into a role you don't want. That might involve stating very clearly if salary or titles are not as important to you as job satisfaction, for example, or explaining why you are satisfied with your current work. 

The challenge, she says, is to do it without signalling that you're not interested in your job or might become disengaged from the organisation. It helps to express interest in developing in other ways, like identifying new areas of expertise you could acquire or becoming a mentor. “There may be many, many roles that you can take on that aren’t managerial,” she says. “It’s about being clear about your motives and what you will do, because I think most managers will accept it.”

Many tech firms have developed Individual Contributor pathways for people who want to grow within their role and the organisation, but not manage people

Willmott says whether a company will consider a less traditional career path for an employee will depend in part on the value of their skillset, and how keen the company is to keep them. He believes that while it's “crucial that business leaders recognise why they need to invest in equipping their managers with the skills to manage people”, they also need to "take a step back and think, ‘OK, can we do things in a slightly different way’” for individuals who are valuable but happy where they are. 

He recalls the example of a "very brilliant investigative reporter” who had no desire to become a manager or editor, but was so valuable he nevertheless became "a high ranking senior member of staff, but as a specialist, investigative reporter”. The trick for companies, he says, is to ensure that a non-managerial job is not always seen as a dead end but can, for the right person, lead to progression opportunities that work for everyone. 

After some time out to recover from her experience, Kate has dipped her toe back into management, in a training and development team in the financial sector. But this time there’s “only four of them, instead of 30”, she says. She is enjoying rediscovering the hands-on work she has always enjoyed, and having the time and supportive environment to invest in her working relationships. 

But her experience of feeling pushed into a management role before she was ready has been scarring; she says she would turn down a bigger leadership role if it was offered now. “I would have to have complete transparency of what I was walking into,” she says, and to know that the organisation was "able to support me”. 

“I know that managing people is actually the hardest job, and it's not written in your job description how to do it,” she says. “You become successful in your career because of your sole contribution and your subject-matter expertise, and you are promoted based on that. But then you’re asked to manage people. And it’s a whole different skillset.”