How to Get Ahead If You Are Not a People Manager
“I see myself leading a team in the future." When job candidates tell me this during interviews, I usually respond by asking why. Often the answer is simply that they believe this is the best way to grow in their careers and contribute meaningfully to the company. And this may be true for some. But not all. Responses like these stem from a myth worth debunking — that people management is the only way to grow your career. The truth is that many people enjoy successful careers without directly managing anyone.
It is important to be honest about what you really want and position yourself to achieve your professional goals. It is also important to know what you like to do.
It is also true that plenty of people do excel in a traditional people management career path. And it is rewarding to help a team learn, grow, and achieve its goals. You might have a real desire to step back and enable the team's success. And you know that it requires sublimating your own need for the spotlight — throwing credit to the team and taking blame when things go wrong.
Leadership is challenging and fulfilling. But it is not for everyone. Think through your ideal career trajectory. People management may not be in that picture and that is okay. Maybe you are happiest when you are in your own personal "flow" — focusing on a particular type of work you are passionate about.
So how can you advance at work without managing people? The key is to become an expert in whatever it is you choose to do. That could be anything from software development to copywriting to design. You want to be a go-to teammate who consistently delivers exceptional outcomes and is ready to take on the next big project.
When you display excellence in your discipline, you can meaningfully contribute to your organization's vision over time.
Product managers are a great example of this. These folks know how to think strategically, understand a specific market, and translate customer needs into valuable solutions. By honing these skills, many product managers experience incredibly successful careers — significantly contributing to organizational growth without ever directly managing people.
At Aha! we have advanced roles for individual contributors who have made meaningful contributions. For example, the Principal Software Engineer. These are technical leaders who are responsible for some of the most complex greenfield features — from start to finish. And while they do not manage anyone directly, they train the rest of the engineering team on new codebases and help teammates refine their own architectural solutions.
Whatever field you are in, you will not become an expert overnight. It is always important to be intentional about developing your skills and gaining the experience necessary to grow. Being intentional about where you focus your efforts can help you propel yourself into that expert role faster. Here are five things you can do to position yourself to become a leader in your discipline and advance in your career:
Set specific goals
What do you what to achieve in the next year? What about five years? Give yourself something to work towards. Let's say you are a developer and your goal for the next year is to write cleaner code. And in five years, you want to oversee a major infrastructure change to improve your product's performance. Goal setting is a useful exercise that forces you to determine what you want to achieve in your career and helps you identify the steps needed to succeed.
Become a domain expert
As you continue to hone the skills most relevant to your discipline, choose one or two to really sharpen. It may seem counterintuitive, but specializing can help you add depth to your overall expertise. Of course, the skills you focus on should enable you to contribute meaningfully to those longer-term goals. Maybe you are a UX designer and you choose to specialize in mobile because you know that is a fast-growing and dynamic space.
You have a grasp of where you want to be. You are working to specialize within your industry. Now look for ways that you can take on a leadership role in work that will give you a chance to flex both. Let's say you are a project manager and you know the company has set a goal to improve operational efficiency. You might volunteer to lead the effort — vetting new processes and suggesting improvements.
Mentor your colleagues
Managing people might not be for you but you can still help others develop skills. This is a great way to demonstrate your proficiency and it positions you as more of a senior team member in whatever you do. Perhaps your company has a formal mentorship program. Or you can simply offer to peer review work or act as a mentor figure to more junior co-workers who are just getting started.
Share your knowledge
Make your unique combination of skills and experiences known. You could start a blog to regularly document and share your point of view. Maybe there are opportunities to participate in internal knowledge share programs or take on speaking opportunities at events. Over time, these efforts will help establish your reputation as an authority in your area of work.
Career success is not exclusive to people with certain job titles — anyone who is committed to learning, growing, and working hard can get ahead at work.
It takes courage to follow a non-traditional path, particularly when it comes to your job. But when you take time to craft an honest definition of what success looks like to you, then you can be confident that you are investing your time and energy in areas that will move you forward.
Be bold in chasing down the goals that will help you reach that vision. Remember that joy — not a particular title or responsibility — will ultimately drive career success.
Do you think you need to manage people to be a success?
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