One of the major mistakes I see in both startups and established companies is moving their talented contributors to management simply because they are talented contributors. The reality is this:
Just because someone is great at doing the work doesn’t mean they’ll be great at leading the workers.
For instance, if you have a software engineer who is phenomenal at building neural networks does not necessarily mean that he or she should be managing other people. So many companies reward fantastic contributors by moving them to management, to the detriment to both the individual and the company.
Whenever your company tries to force people into a role that they don’t have the skills for, it becomes a huge liability. Here are some reasons why that’s a problem:
Effective management requires a different skill set than contributing. Only very extraordinary individuals possess both the talent to implement and the talent to manage. In our software engineer example, how often have you met someone who can handle both neural network architecture and complex political situations between cross-functional partners while equipping the people they manage to do their best work? It’s very rare indeed. The bottom line is that people-management is a skill-set, just as software engineering, salesmanship, and culinary art are skill-sets. Some people have it, some people can learn it, and some people never will excel at it.
You lose a phenomenal contributor while gaining a mediocre manager. When your career ladder only exists of management rungs, your contributors feel “capped” in their career, and will therefore leave your company upon realizing that they definitely do not want to manage people. For those willing to give it a shot, they are often doing so only because of lack of options, not because of the presence of passion for managing people. Don’t allow your career ladder to be one of the reasons your organization loses talent.
Other contributors will feel the brunt of your career ladder’s shortcomings. The person promoted to management could possibly feel elated, at least at first. He or she just received a promotion, a title change, and a position of perceived authority. But the failures of your career ladder will eventually feel their direct reports. Not only do they now have a leader who may not be a good manager, but they’ve also lost a valuable colleague alongside them “in the trenches”.
It builds a culture of contributors as second-class citizens to management. When your promotional chain only communicates or includes people-management positions, those in contributing positions feel like they aren’t as recognized or rewarded. If there are no senior-level and above contributor positions, your talent will soon leave for a company that recognizes knowledge workers as necessary as people managers.
Lattices, not ladders. Ladders are single-path tools. One way up or down. A lattice, on the hand, has multiple paths, both vertically and horizontally. LinkedIn has done a solid job of this, with a “management” career path as well as a “technical” career path, each well-defined, and flexing from one career path to another is not only allowed but encouraged when the context calls for it. If I’m an employee at your company, and I want to remain at your company for a decade as a contributor, is there a clear career path for me to follow, or would you at some point talk to me about managing people? In addition to allowing people to enter people management, you should also allow for people to remain a contributor while advancing in their career as well.
Encourage cross-functional career changes. As long as cross-functional career changes (product to engineering, marketing to finance, line cook to front-of-house, etc.) are clearly communicated in advance to all parties involved, they can be very healthy for a company’s culture. It allows for people to find their passion while putting the most skilled person in a position suitable for them. Again, communication is key because you don’t want for territorial feuds to begin across your organization as people try to poach resources, but when done in a healthy manner, cross-functional career changes can be a positive experience for all involved.
Offer opportunities to explore management pre-promotion. “So you think you want to manage?” classes, allowing contributors to be mentors, and delegating time-bound projects and teams to contributors allows them to explore what it looks like to manage people in a safe environment with an exit point. These opportunities also allows you to evaluate the person in a leadership role without major consequence if it doesn’t work out.
Create a leadership-development program. Regardless if someone is a contributor or people-manager, they can still utilize leadership skills. In fact, the amount of influence one exhibits as a contributor is often what separates a senior-level contributor from someone more junior. By building a program to develop leaders, you bolster the scalability of your organization with regards to management, because you will eventually find people passionate about managing and leading people while encouraging contributors to exhibit more influence within their role. It’s a win-win.