What if you don’t want to be the boss?
Most workers seek a career that progresses upward — taking them from entry-level employee to midlevel manager to senior leader. They participate in performance reviews, hoping each time to receive a promotion that will get them to the next step up the corporate ladder.
But not everyone has dreams of being the boss. Some people are more comfortable staying in a midlevel position or becoming specialized in one particular area. Being an effective leader takes skill, and not everyone excels at managing other people.
If you’re someone who doesn’t aspire to be an executive, you can still have a successful career and make meaningful contributions to your company. “You are already ahead of the game [by] being able to recognize that you are not comfortable managing people,” says Craig Vived, founder of professional staffing firm Vivalta Inc.
A company’s environment can make a difference
“Often, employees fall into what is known as the Peter Principle: a belief that in an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success and merit, that organization’s members will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability,” Vived explains. “This makes it important to look at your current company’s culture to see if you are in an ‘up or out’ environment, as this will not suit your needs.”
Also assess your boss’s management style. Is your boss always pushing you to get to the next level, or is she more focused on you being the best that you can be at what you currently do? Evaluating your work environment will help you determine if you’ll succeed in your desired role.
Steadiness and predictability are often valued
Teams often operate the best when their members bring different personality and work styles to the group. If everyone had identical skills, interests and goals, no one would ever feel challenged or pushed to be dynamic. Companies need diverse workers with different strengths to fuel their business.
“While proactive workers who have leadership aspirations are revered, so are the folks who do good work and don’t want to be the boss,” says Brian Williamson, leadership-development expert at experiential learning and development company ProfitAbility. “Many of my clients call these ‘the steadies,’ because their performance is predictable and valued. They pose less of a risk than low-performers and require less time than high-performers who may also be high maintenance. Just because an employee doesn’t want to be in charge doesn’t mean they’re not motivated.”
Fields that foster lateral growth
“There are many professions in which individuals do not aspire to lead other people,” says Susan Cucuzza, founder of executive-coaching company Live Forward. “Smart companies have begun designing career paths for those professions.” Cucuzza cites engineering, IT and sales as three fields that often have workers who aspire to specialize rather than supervise. “Technical fields, such as engineering and IT, are filled with individuals who love what they do around the technical aspects of the job. Moving into a management position is a very different role.”
According to Cucuzza, some companies offer structured technical career paths so that their employees can progress by moving into higher technical levels with greater responsibility. “The case is similar in the sales profession, where there are many outstanding sales professionals who either don’t fit the role of the sales manager or don’t aspire to manage other people. The best salespeople love the customer contact and being out in the field, and they are driven by sales commissions. A sales leadership role will often take the individual away from heavy customer contact, will pay more in line with a base salary and lower commission and involve a lot of sales-team leadership.”
Constructing your career path
What direction can you take if you don’t want to go up? If you’re trying to figure it out, think about what it is about your job that you like, what you want to do more of or what, aside from a promotion, would make you feel successful. Is it working on a challenging project? Having greater visibility with senior management? Being the go-to expert on a specific topic or company function?
Once you determine your career goals, talk to your manager about them. “Not aspiring to move into management is not at all a sign of complacency or lack of drive and motivation,” Cucuzza notes. “But it is important that individuals describe what career advancement looks like for them. It is likely that their manager will respond very positively and very supportively. In fact, many managers shy away from having career discussions with their direct reports, because they fear that their direct reports are seeking promotions that the managers cannot promise.”
If you want to remain in a non-management role, Cucuzza stresses the importance of demonstrating your ability to add greater value and take on increased responsibilities and projects, proving your desire for continued personal growth and development.
Cucuzza also suggests looking into continuing-education programs that your company might offer as a way to strengthen your skills. “Leading companies invest in developing their people. An individual should ask what options are out there for career growth. It might be a technical or professional career path, it may be as simple as volunteering to lead a team project or cross-train in another department or it may be an opportunity to attend training or seminars or achieve continuing-education credits, paid for by the company.”
Whether you want to go up, down, left or right, if you’re passionate about what you’re doing and confident in your position, you can create your own definition of a successful career.