Do you like to do work yourself or do you like to get work done through others?
The answer, in my opinion, is the fundamental line determining who does and doesn’t have management potential. Unfortunately, that’s not how most organizations think. In most companies, if someone is good at a function, all the organization’s energies and hierarchies are geared toward promoting that person—to have them manage a group of people who are doing that same thing, whether or not that person is interested in managing at all. It’s the well-known Peter Principle: people in hierarchical organizations tend to rise through promotion to their respective level of incompetence.
Just think of all the hall-of-fame players from the sports world who have become great coaches or general managers.
Go ahead … I’m waiting.
Meanwhile, the list of former players who failed spectacularly in those roles is long and still growing—because doing is one thing, and managing is something else entirely.
So, before you think you’d like to manage people, ask yourself this: “What do I enjoy most?”
If you like working through others and helping them achieve success, you might be great in a management role. But if you’re hands-on, you may find management challenging at best, intolerable at worst.
Tech companies have been notably good at creating an alternative to the corporate management ladder. On what’s often referred to as the technical ladder, it’s possible to be a very well-paid, senior-level person who is not a manager. The chief technical officer (CTO) at many companies doesn’t really “manage” any people and has no or few direct reports. Still, they are super influential.
I believe all organizations can take a lesson from tech on this count. But to work, it has to come from and be vigorously supported in the executive suite: creating opportunities for great technical (i.e., skilled) people who do not want to be or should not be managers, to stay with you, make lots of money, and be recognized as key contributors to the organization’s success.
There are many great reasons for doing this, not least the one that happens to also be the most pragmatic: if you don’t recognize and pay these people for what they do, someone else will.
Technical positions exist in every field—not just technology. Maybe you run an auto repair business. There is going to be one mechanic that all the others go to with problems they just can’t figure out because they know he or she can. That person isn’t a manager—but maybe they’re the chief mechanic, or senior mechanic, or what have you. They make you a lot of money by mentoring others: helping them avoid mistakes and find the most efficient approaches to challenges. That is very different from directing (managing) them.
Think instead about rewarding the people in your organization whose outsized impact and competence earn them management-level compensation. The minute you turn that guy or gal into a manager and give them responsibility for the flow or quality of work, you change them and every interaction they have with the other mechanics. And if they really love their hands-on work, they’re unlikely to see those changes as being for the better.
We see this too in professional settings. In an early-stage company, it is just fine (excellent, in fact) if the top salesperson makes a million bucks when the CEO is making a quarter of a million. That’s what you want. So why not carry that ethos through? Why confuse and distract people—people who are great at what they do and happy doing it—with the brass ring of management?
One of the truths about management is something that many see as a completely counterintuitive thought: the best managers want to make themselves superfluous. True managers aspire to assemble teams that are so high functioning that, at a minimum, they could function reasonably well for a long time in the manager’s absence. At the most extreme level, on a truly amazing team, it would theoretically be possible for anyone on the team to take the reins and successfully direct the work for a long time.
But there are flies in the proverbial ointment, little things like personalities and egos. And that’s why most people—both managers and non-managers—worry that if those around them become so successful that they are no longer needed, they will be in trouble. As a result, they try to protect their jobs by getting political.
True managers know better. They’re the first to take responsibility when criticism surfaces about those they lead or the projects they manage, but they are also quick to reflect praise back to the people who really do the work when they’re successful. They say to themselves, “The best thing I can be as a first-line manager is no longer needed. Then I can move up to the second line, and one of the great people I work with now can take my place.” And so on and so forth… And that’s how people find themselves getting promoted from managers to VPs and maybe even all the way to CEO.
When you remove the pressure on people to become something they are not—managers—and replace it with the possibility, available to anyone, of enjoying the status, respect, and success they would have as a manager and give them the opportunity to do that by simply doing what they love, you enrich not just their work experience but the culture of the whole organization.
Finally, whether you’re thinking about your managers or your highly skilled non-managers, understanding the needs and desires of your people is key in leading organizations that don’t suck the life out of you and your people. If you want to learn more about how you can work with your people to get the best out of them, grab a copy of my book, Joy and Success at Work. You’ll learn principles like the ones in this article, and others, that will help you build teams of motivated, talented individuals who can find both fulfillment and happiness as they help the organization, and themselves, achieve success.