What if I Don’t Want to Become a People Manager?

Welcome to CB’s work-advice column featuring Emily Durham, a Toronto-based senior recruiter at Intuit, public speaker and content creator known for her funny and relatable TikToks about all things work. Each month, Durham answers reader questions on topics that affect our ability to thrive in our jobs, and offers her real-world insights on how to handle even the most rock-and-a-hard-place conundrums. Have a work-related question? Send it to [email protected].

Q: I have been in a senior-level role at my company for the last five years and my manager and I have been talking about my next career move: becoming a manager. The problem is, I don’t actually think I want to manage people. Does this mean my career will be stunted? What is next for me?

At many organizations, the transition from individual contributor to manager is the most loudly celebrated. It comes with additional responsibility, owning the development of people on your team and, of course, more visibility to senior leadership. But for many, the dream of people leadership feels much more like a nightmare.

First, know that you are not alone for feeling like people leadership isn’t your ideal career move. The step into managing a team usually means taking several steps away from doing the work you actually enjoy. It also comes with added layers of politics and performance management that can ultimately be extremely draining. At many organizations the compensation bump provided for these promotions is not usually enough to justify the increased workload and responsibility. In fact, more and more Millennial and Gen Z talent say they do not want to be people managers.

Related: Gen Z Inspired My Mid-Career Pivot

But with so many companies encouraging strong individual contributors to move into management, does that mean your career is stunted? Not at all. The most important thing to do is to share your career ambitions with your manager in order to set expectations. Ideally this conversation should be in person, or over the phone, so nothing is lost in translation over email or text.

Your manager wants to see you in a people-leadership position because they think you’re amazing—it’s a significant compliment. Start the conversation by thanking them for seeing your potential and emphasize your desire to grow at the company. Follow up by sharing that your passion is growing as an individual contributor who is an expert in your craft, and that you would like to explore opportunities that align with that passion. Your leader will likely push you to reconsider, but it is so important you are firm in your conviction. This is your career. Your 40 hours every single week.

Every organization will have different succession planning, but asking to move into a principal, internal expert or business partner role is a very viable and common career path I have seen in industries like tech and finance. These styles of roles are just as senior as people managers, but instead focus on being a subject-matter expert without managing individuals. This career path is especially aligned for folks who want to be seen as an authority in their area of expertise versus moving away from the hands-on work they love. In my own experience, I worked as a senior recruiter at Intuit for four years, and recently was promoted to a principal-level role that has significantly expanded my scope without requiring me to manage a team.

In this conversation with your manager, ask them to help guide you on what positions (if any) currently exist in the company. If they don’t currently exist, is there an opportunity for a role to be carved out for you? Having an open conversation will not only deepen the trust you have with your leader, but it may open doors to career paths that wouldn’t have been available had you not asked.

In the event your company doesn’t have a natural next step for you, you have two (equally good) options. The first is staying in your current role, with the expectation that you receive a salary increase at the end of every year that keeps you feeling valued and motivated. This is something that I would also encourage you to speak about with your leader to get a sense of the annual budget and merit-increase processes.

If you are itching for a new opportunity or don’t have faith you will be compensated fairly, make a lateral jump to another company. And do this every two years to maximize your earnings. Studies show that employees earn more by job hopping than they do by staying at one company for many years.

Ultimately, you get to decide what your ideal career path looks like, and what company you’ll grow at. Having open conversations about your wants (and your boundaries) is the first and most important step to making sure you grow in the right direction.

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