Most of the questions I get on growing your career are about getting to management, but this reader doesn’t want to be a manager:
What advice do you have for those who are currently in management roles and want to transition back to an individual contributor role? Many professionals who were promoted to management discover that they dislike being responsible for others’ output, or that they miss the hands-on aspects of their field, or that they have low tolerance for the “bureaucracy” that comes along with being a manager. How does one reposition his/her professional aspirations that many will see as going back down the ladder of success?
Whenever you change jobs, emphasize the positive
Karen’s question implies that she was already a manager and now wants out. Whenever you change from one job to another, you have two basic choices in how you explain your reasoning: 1) the negative (i.e., you don’t want your current job); or 2) the positive (i.e., you want this other job). You always want to stay positive in your job search and focus on wanting, not not wanting. Don’t make your employer feel like your next move is just a rebound relationship!
You can see the difference right in Karen’s question. She offers three possible reasons to want out of management and back into an individual contributor role. Two are negative – e.g., disliking being responsible for others, low tolerance for bureaucracy. One is positive – e.g., missing the hands-on aspects of their field. Which person would you choose for your team — the two that are complaining about what they don’t want and looking at your job as an escape, or the one who is genuinely drawn to the role?
The approach of emphasizing the positive also works when you are first offered a management role but know you want to remain an individual contributor. Don’t list all the reasons why you don’t want to be a manager. Instead, focus on all the reasons why you want to stay as you are, as well as (and especially) why the company benefits from you staying as you are. Sell them on the positives (to you and to them) of staying in your current role, and you never have to mention the negatives.
When you transition your responsibilities, minimize the disruption on everyone else
If you’re already in the manager role, create a transition plan that you can pitch to the boss so you’re not leaving them in the lurch. Recommend a colleague or offer to help with the search, and have a specific process and schedule for moving your work onto the next manager. At the same time, have a plan for integrating into the individual contributor role. Make it easy for your boss to say Yes to what you are asking.
Keep in mind that you may have to renegotiate compensation, if your management role came with a raise and/or bonus tied to being in management. Even if your promotion into management didn’t come with additional compensation at the time you moved, your boss may argue for a decrease in compensation since you will be taking on less responsibility. If your role directly impacts the bottom line and you can show that you can have the equivalent impact as an individual contributor, then you want to have those arguments ready.
When you make an atypical career move, be proactive with your brand
Karen’s question also points out the potential problem of making an atypical career move – i.e., moving out of management when most professionals aspire to move in. When your career trajectory shows increasing teams and/or budgets, you don’t need to explain your progress. However, when you don’t have those visible progress markers, you need something else to demonstrate success.
Becoming a known expert in your industry and/ or function is one way to demonstrate success. Speaking at conferences, getting quoted in media or publishing in trade journals are tangible ways to establish your thought leadership. Having a large network, including recruiter relationships, enables you to stay top of mind within your field. Maintaining a visible brand with an updated online profile and active social media allows you to share your expertise. All of these activities enhance your career credibility without requiring you to take a management role. (I have used these tactics, when moving into a new line of business, so it also works for business owners who don’t necessarily want to grow by hiring.)
Career growth is not just about bragging rights, but about career longevity
It may sound confident to say that you don’t care what other people think or that you have your own version of success and that’s all that matters. However, people hire people, so you do need to manage what other people think for the sake of your career. Even as an individual contributor or solopreneur, you want prospective employers and customers to choose you now and in the future.