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How to Grow Your Career Without Being a Team Lead or Executive

The standard career path is pretty straightforward. Start at an entry level position, move to an intermediate position as you gain more skills in your craft, become an expert and get more decision making responsibilities, and then move into a management role, which will act as your launch pad into more senior roles.

Source: SAP Career Guide

A typical corporate ladder. Source: SAP Career Guide

For instance, let’s say you are a recently graduated software engineer. You get your first job as a low level engineer doing pretty basic stuff.

Over time, you improve your skills and move up the ladder, being entrusted with bigger responsibilities and bigger projects.

As you continue honing your skills, your employer takes note of your expertise, and therefore, you get promoted to Technical Lead, in charge of managing a small team of engineers.

Since you are an ambitious person, you find a new opportunity in another company and move there as the Engineering Manager.

From there, you continue advancing to VP/Director of Engineering, and hopefully, one day you make it to Chief Technical Officer or Head of Engineering, which can be considered the pinnacle of the software engineering career ladder.

For most people, this standard career path is quite okay, and is what majority of workers yearn for. For some people, however, the standard career path might not be the best way to grow their careers. Some dislike the standard career path because by pushing them into management roles, it takes them from the aspects of their job that they love.

For instance, as a Chief Technical Officer, probably none of your time will be spent coding and creating programs. If the creativity of building systems from scratch is what got you into software engineering, you might feel that your job has become boring, because you are not doing what you love.

Others might feel that while they are quite good at the technical aspects of their jobs, they are not quite good at managing people. By following the standard career path, they are essentially being pushed into failure.

So, what happens if you do not want to become a manager? Is it possible to continue growing your career without taking up a management role, or will you be forced to resign yourself to career stagnation?

The good news is that it is possible to grow in your career without having to preside over a team. In this article, we are going to share some tips that will help you grow in your career even if you do not want to become a manager.

Before doing that, however, let’s take a look at why some people do not like management roles.

WHY SOME PEOPLE DISLIKE MANAGEMENT ROLES

For most people, being handed a team to manage is the perfect indicator that their career is growing. For some people, however, nothing sucks like being asked to become a manager.

There are several reasons why someone might not be enthusiastic about the prospects of becoming a manager. These include:

  • Management positions take you away from the tangible aspects of your work. Most people love the creative aspects of their job – writing, coding, designing, shooting photos and videos, and other ways of creating actual output. Once you become manager, your time won’t be spent creating. Instead, it will be spent making sure your team is creating. As a result, you might not feel that sense of accomplishment once a project is done, even if you were in charge of ensuring that it got done.
  • Communication is a big part of what it takes to be a good manager. You will need to communicate – and promote – the company’s strategy to your team, even if you might sometimes not be in agreement with this strategy. If your team is not doing their work properly, or if someone is not performing as they should, it will be your responsibility to let them know that their work is not up to par, that they need to pull up their socks. In case the company needs to lay off some of your team, it will be your responsibility as a manager to communicate this to your team. All these aspects of communication can make a management role quite overwhelming.
  • Management requires strong problem solving skills. As an individual contributor, you typically work on whatever you are assigned. If a problem arises, simply pass it over to your boss. As a manager, it will be your responsibility to put out these fires.
  • Management roles have a huge emotional toll. Depending on the nature of your work, your team will express various emotions resulting from their work, such as anger, stress, frustration, fear, and so on. Most of these emotions will be directed towards you, and as your manager, you have to deal with all these emotions without losing your cool. Sometimes, this can lead to emotional burnout, which is not something everyone wants to have to deal with.
  • Some people just feel that they are not cut out for a management job. Ironically, most people get promoted to management positions after showing expertise in the technical aspects of their jobs, yet excelling in a management position requires a different set of skills from what is required to excel in the technical aspects of the job. Therefore, some of these people feel that by being pushed into management roles, they are being set up for failure. To be a good manager, what one needs are leadership skills, not technical skills. It is possible for someone to be a good manager even when they don’t know much about the technical aspects of what their team does.
  • Being a manager means that you will be responsible for the work of the entire team, in addition to your own work. This can lead to increased stress, especially if you are in charge of people who need close supervision in order to perform their work well. Therefore, some people prefer to remain as individual contributors, responsible for just their own work, rather than being responsible for the whole team.
  • Being a manager means that you will probably be forced to work longer hours. It is not abnormal to find managers spending entire weekends working, especially when the company is working on a major project. Not everyone is willing to compromise their work life balance to become a manager.

HOW TO ADVANCE IN YOUR CAREER WITHOUT BECOMING A MANAGER

If you don’t want to become a manager, there is nothing wrong with that. Actually, you do not have to grudgingly take a management role just because the world has made it seem like that is the only way to grow your career.

With the right approach, you can still continue growing in your career without ever having to manage people.

Below, let’s look at some tips that will help you continue advancing your career without taking responsibility for others.

Choose the Right Roles

One of the best ways to make sure that you are able to continue growing your career without having to manage people is to make the right choice right from the start – when you are job hunting.

During your job search, don’t just take whatever job comes your way. Instead, you need to be deliberate with organizations you seek to work for, as well as the positions you decide to take in these organizations.

During the interview stage, hold a conversation with the interviewers and find out what growth opportunities for growth you have available to you.

Do they expect you to move into a management role as you advance in your career, or are they content with benefiting from your expertise as an individual contributor? Ask about the last person who held the position you are interviewing for.

Was the person promoted to a management position, or were they given a promotion that allowed them to maintain their status as an individual contributor? This will give you a good idea into the kind of growth opportunities available within the company.

Your findings from asking these questions should help you determine whether to take the job or not. For instance, if you have ascertained that the other people who held this position were promoted into managerial positions, there is a high likelihood that this is what will be expected of you if you take the job.

However, just because the company expects you to move into a management role as you advance in your career doesn’t mean that you should immediately reject the job if that is not what you have in mind. Instead, bring up a conversation with the interviewers to find out if it is possible to advance in the position without having to move into a management role.

The best time to bring this up is when you the interviewers ask “where you see yourself in five years,” a common interview question.

If, even after this conversation, it becomes clear to you that the only way to advance in the position is to take up a management role, you can decline the position and look for another position that will allow you to grow without having to become a manager.

Advocate for a Different Kind of Promotion

While it’s good to choose the right roles right from the start, sometimes you might realize that you don’t want to get into management when you are already working.

The fact that your employer is thinking of promoting you shows that they believe you are a self-motivated and skilled employee who brings value to the organization.

If you do not want to take up a management role, instead of declining the promotion all together, request your employer to give you a different kind of promotion that doesn’t involve people management.

For instance, you can ask to be promoted to a senior version of the role you hold currently hold, where you can get involved in strategic planning on how to deal with projects, but without having to deal with management responsibilities such as supervising others, dealing with budget issues, reviewing employee performance, and so on.

As you pitch this form of promotion, focus on highlighting your specialized skills and qualities that make you a good fit for this kind of high-level position that doesn’t involve management.

Since your employer has already seen your value and does not want to lose you, there is a high chance that they will oblige your request, creating a win-win situation both for you and your employer.

Focus on In-Role Advancement

Another way to grow your career without getting promoted into management positions or finding opportunities elsewhere is to focus on in-role advancement.

With in-role advancement, you remain in the same position, while still stretching yourself professionally by either taking on more responsibilities, handling bigger projects, being assigned projects that are more prestigious, taking on work that is more challenging than you were doing before, and so on.

With in-role advancement, not only do you get a chance to grow professionally without taking on managerial responsibilities, you also get a chance to grow financially.

Since you are handling bigger, more challenging work, you have a basis to negotiate for a pay raise, even if you are still in the same position.

Move Laterally Rather Than Vertically

Sometimes, as you continue advancing your career within your organization, it will get to a point where your only remaining option is to take up a managerial position.

Since you do not want to take up the managerial position, instead of continuing to seek vertical growth within the same organization, why not make a lateral move to a similar but better position in another organization? In other words, instead of becoming a bigger fish in a small pond, why not move to a bigger pond?

Even though you are making a lateral move, the move can be seen as career advancement if the new position offers your access to greater ideas, bigger projects, better pay, a better work environment, better clients, better connections, and so on.

For instance, let’s say you are a reporter working for a local media house. After growing in your career over the years, you get to a point where your only option for growing within this organization is to manage your fellow reporters.

However, what you love about your work is the technical aspects of your job – going out to the field to search for news stories, finding amazing angles, and reporting your well-researched stories to your audience.

You don’t want to give this up, and you also don’t want to deal with the office politics that comes with managerial positions.

In such situations, instead of taking up the managerial position, you can seek opportunities in a bigger media house, say a national or even international media organization.

If you get hired to one of these organizations, you work will still revolve around the same thing – going out to the field to search for news stories, finding amazing angles, and reporting your well-researched stories to your audience – but this time round, you will be reporting to a national or an international audience, rather than your local state audience.

You will be handling bigger stories, interviewing more influential people, and so on. This is still career growth, even if you moved laterally, rather than vertically.

Become a Consultant

Sometimes, most options for growing your career will require you to move up to management, and if you do not want that, your only remaining option might be to leave employment and strike out on your own. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to become a consultant.

As a consultant, you will be self-employed, using your skills, experience, and expertise to provide strategic advice, training, ongoing coaching, and done-for-you services to businesses.

Striking out on your own as a consultant has a number of benefits. First, you will have the freedom to choose which clients to work with. Second, consulting is more lucrative compared to being employed, which is an element of career growth in itself. Finally, as a consultant, you are not limited by your employer, and therefore, you are free to use your own metrics to measure and track the growth of your career.

Become an Independent Contractor

Your other option for striking out on your own and growing your career is to become an independent contractor or a freelancer. As a contractor, you will be doing work that is similar to what you were doing while employed, but you will be doing it for different clients, rather than one company.

If you want to succeed as an independent contractor, however, you should focus on becoming an expert in your chosen field. Since you don’t have to deal with the paper-pushing duties of managing other people, you should devote your time to honing the skills that make you one of the best in your field.

Just like being a consultant, being an independent contractor can be more lucrative than employment, and you have the perk of being your own boss. You also have the freedom to use your own metrics to measure the growth of your career.

For instance, you can track the progress of your career by number of clients, size of clients, the rates you charge for your services, your reputation, your brand visibility, and so on.

Switch to Careers Without Management Requirements

Sometimes, depending on your current line of work, it will get to a point where it will be impossible to grow without taking on managerial duties. If being a manager is the last thing you want in your career, you can consider making a career change and switching to a career path that does not have any management requirements.

Fortunately, there is a wide range of careers where you can grow to very senior positions without being required to manage people.

These include some careers in IT and telecommunications, medical professionals, careers in design (interior design, graphic design, digital design, and so on), writing, data analysis, science and research, and so on. If you don’t want anything to do with managing people, you can start thinking of switching to one of these careers.

Devote Yourself to Continuous Learning

I want you to think for a moment about what prompts your employer to promote you to a management position. Your employer doesn’t simply wake up one day and decide that you need a promotion.

No.

Their decision is based on the fact that your employer has been observing you and noticed an improvement in your skills and expertise. If you haven’t been learning in your position, you will never be up for a promotion.

The same thing applies to those who want to advance in their careers without getting into management positions.

For your career to grow, you need to continuously improve your skills and expertise, and for this to happen, you need to devote yourself to continuous learning. Without continuous learning, you are condemning your career to stagnation.

Therefore, regardless of whatever path you choose to grow your career from those discussed above, you should adopt a growth mindset. Always look for ways to get better at what you do, try to add new skills to what you know, ask for feedback from your bosses, clients and mentors, do regular research into your field of work, and so on.

If you commit yourself to continuous learning, you can rest assured that your career will continue growing.

WRAPPING UP

For most careers, taking up management roles is the natural path for career progression, and for a lot of people, becoming a manager is the dream.

However, if you do not want to become a manager, this does not mean that you cannot advance in your career. There are still several ways to grow without becoming a manager.

The best and most effective approach is to start by choosing roles that allow you to grow without having to become a manager.

However, even if you did not do this during your job search, you still have several other options available to you, including focusing on in-role advancement, advocating for a different kind of promotion, moving laterally rather than vertically, and striking out on your own to become an independent contractor or a consultant.

If none of these absolutely works for your chosen career path, you can consider making a career change to a career with minimal managerial requirements.

Ultimately, however, career growth, regardless of your chosen path, is all about continuous learning and professional development.

Don’t Want to Be a Manager? Here's How You Can Still Grow in Your Career

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