You Don't Have To Lead In Order To Succeed

by @edent | # # | 3 comments | Read ~353 times.

Last week I ran a mentoring session with a young woman working in technology. She's smart, capable, dedicated, confident and utterly un-ambitious.

She was incredibly frustrated that all of the training courses and women's networks she had found were fixated on her becoming a manager, an executive, or a CEO. We were both in agreement that our industry needs diverse representation at all levels - but that doesn't mean that everyone wants to reach those levels.

In her case, she was loving work and loving life. She had great work/life balance, a partner happy to help with childcare, and was part of a fun project. Why should she disrupt all that by trying to climb the greasy pole? This wasn't a question of having less time for herself or her family - her employers are famously supportive - but simply a disconnect between what she wanted and what she was expected to want.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of a good education must be in want of a management position.
Jane Austen's "Lean In and Lean Out Again"

This is a dilemma with which I've also struggled. A few years ago I took an "Introduction To Line Management" course put on by my employers. In it I learned...

  • How to discipline an employee who made a racist comment to a customer.
  • Telling an employee that you need to cancel their holiday.
  • Dealing with complaints between your staff.
  • Year End Reviews.
  • Putting people on Performance Improvement Plans.
  • Budgeting for bonuses.
  • Processing sick leave and ensuring it isn't being abused.

And on and on it went. An endless parade of minor tragedies which can befall a modern workplace. Don't get me wrong - all of those skills are important - but it's nothing I want to be responsible for on a daily basis. I want to build, create, discover, improve - I don't want to grouse at people who haven't filled in their timesheets properly or spend days crafting PowerPoints for a budget meeting.

At the end of the course, a bunch of us asked a simple question - "OK, those are the horror stories - but what are the good things about being a manager?"

There wasn't a real answer. A bit more kudos and a small pay rise, that's about it.

I value my time more than the prestige of being a manager. While I'm happy to perform services in exchange for currency - the pay rise associated with more senior positions doesn't offset the cost to my mental health.

I'm lucky in that I've rarely had a bad manager. But their skillset and mine are very different. I also think that their attitude to work is vastly different to mine.

Reading this excellent article by Julie Zhuo - "Unintuitive Things I’ve Learned about Management" - has lead me to conclude that perhaps I'm just not interested enough in people to become a good manager.

I remember having a conversation with a manager several years ago. She asked why I didn't want to go into management. The only coherent reason I could give was that I didn't want to spend my days telling people what to do. I'm not a natural leader and, if I'm honest, would be slightly distrustful of those who chose to follow me.

She really couldn't understand what I found so distasteful. Part of the problem is that our culture glorifies leaders. Would I really want to be Mark Zuckerberg? Sure, I'd like the money - but I'm not sure I'd cope with the endless pressure from investors, constant media attention, or fanatical users. I'm not sure the game is worth the candle.

Returning to the woman I was mentoring; I encouraged her to take every opportunity that her networks afforded her. Take a class on management training, or budgeting, or whatever. Have it as a skill in your back pocket for if you need it. At the very least, you'll be able to understand what motivates your manager.

But it's OK to refuse a kingly crown.

I try to champion diversity at all levels. And if the barriers to your success are external you should smash them down!

But if the barriers to progression are internal...

Success and progress are only weakly linked. If you don't want to be an executive - there's nothing wrong with you! Your success depends on your own goals - don't let someone else's arbitrary milestone become your millstone.

I'm at a loss as to what to do here. Both for myself and those I find in a similar situation. I asked if anyone on Twitter felt the same.

Are you in a technical role? Do you feel any pressure to move "upwards"? Do you feel that it is possible to achieve greatness without managing people? Or should I give in to the inevitable and start to put aside my personal desires and take one for the team?

3 thoughts on “You Don't Have To Lead In Order To Succeed

  1. Rachel says:

    They missed out one of the best things about being a manager. The satisfaction of supporting the team, helping them develop, letting them fly away to their next steps. I love that bit.

  2. A B says:

    The only thing that would tempt me into (person) management would be the feeling that, by organising a team, I could allow us to achieve more than we could as individuals, and that I was the most suitable candidate for the organisation role (e.g. perhaps because we couldn't afford to have someone who's a much better engineer than I waste their time doing organising instead of engineering). Many organisations are so shambolic, however, that I can't motivate myself to put myself through the wringer for what I'd expect to be tiny gains for the organisation.

    Something I'm rather more keen on is technical management/architecture, and this kind of role seems to be spreading. No personnel management responsibilities, a place to go when your hands-on technical skills have peaked, but which still makes extensive use of your technical background and experience.

  3. fjvwing says:

    Actually, I have been very lucky that in one agency, I got to be a Director of teams, and a line-manager separately. That form of being a director gave me the opportunity to do the work from a very high level and manage how the work got done, while the line management you speak off was for only one or two people separate from the work. You can see this in dev teams where one person is Teal Lead or Software Architect, and the team has a separate Line Manager.

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