This a question almost everyone asks at one point in his or her career. In this article, I’m going to discuss why it’s a good question, how to think about management and leadership, how to decide what the right answer is for you, and why it’s good to know the answer early in your career.
Why It’s a Good Question
Most of us start out our careers as individual contributors. This means we are responsible for individual functions or tasks at work. It could be a client portfolio, engineering a product line, teaching a classroom, or providing a service, etc. You’re responsible for your own work and your goal should be to exceed expectations in this realm. However, you are not responsible for the performance and development of other employees.
“Should I Become a Manager?” is a good question to ask since it can set you on a new career trajectory. Leading others will increase your scope, bring on new challenges, provide deep fulfillment, and stretch you in ways that individual contributor roles can’t.
The problem with this question is it often leads to bad answers. Some people force the issue because they think it’s the only way they can grow their careers. A classic example of this is in sales. Let’s say a company has a terrific salesperson e.g. they regularly beat their revenue targets, intimately understand the products or services they
What do companies usually do with these sales rock stars? Promote him or her to sales manager, obviously. This often doesn’t make sense though. Let me explain: Most rock star salespeople love the rush of closing a deal, making money (for themselves and the company), finding new opportunities, and partnering with clients.
When you manage other sales people you may do some of that, but you’re also developing talent, filling out performance reviews, blocking for your people, monitoring sales targets and providing reporting to executives, sitting in internal meetings, and strategic planning, etc. It can be a very different motion from what he or she enjoyed and succeeded in historically.
The Peter Principle
One of my favorite management terms is the Peter Principle. According to Wikipedia, it’s a management concept developed by Laurence J. Peter, which observes that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence”. In other words, an employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another. The concept was elucidated in the 1969 book The Peter Principle by Peter and Raymond Hull. This happens all the time in companies and is something to be mindful of in your career.
My wife used to work in fashion in NYC and eventually started her own high-end women’s clothing company. A lot of people think fashion is glamorous, but my wife and her friends have shown me fashion is anything but. It’s cut-throat with long hours, petty, and little pay early on. Plus, it’s highly saturated with huge barriers of cost to enter. Despite what you see in movies, the fashion district is a dump and people don’t love working in that part of Manhattan. It’s the same way in entertainment, sports, and business. Rarely do we see the hard work behind-the-scenes – only the finished product.
The same thing goes with leadership and management. It often appears more glamorous than it is. First, you’re dealing with humans who are inherently irrational. And yet, we humans think we’re very rational – myself included. Right off the bat, you’re in an uphill battle. You are also responsible for hiring, developing, retaining, reporting, driving performance operations, strategic planning, and increasing revenue. Plus, you have to work with other functions in the company to help your team (and theirs) be successful. For example, I lead a technical consulting team in North America. In order to be successful, we have to work with our sales, product, and engineering. We are highly integrated with these teams, which means I spend a lot of time with their managers. Also, the higher up you go in leadership success becomes less about your own team’s performance and more about how you can influence other organizations in the business.
BUT leadership and management are also highly rewarding. The best part of my job is seeing people grow, develop, and reach their potential. I have former teammates in other areas of our company, but many have moved on to other startups, companies, or completely different industries. The best part of my gig is hearing how well he or she is doing in their new role knowing part of their success can be attributed to their experiences on my team.
How do I figure out the right answer?
As a leader of an organization, it’s important to maintain a strong leadership bench. Organizations are fluid and things can change quickly – especially in tech. As such, managers are always thinking about the next generation of managers for their teams. Here are a few things I’ve asked individual contributors to do once they express interest in becoming a manager. It’s lead to much success in growing my team and providing opportunities for talented individuals.
- Look for opportunities to mentor new hires. Always raise your hand to onboard new hires, if applicable. It gives you a small taste of what it looks like to train and coach people. Plus, it’ll also be a nice bullet for your next promotion.
- Read The Five Levels of Leadership by John Maxwell. I love to study and read books on leadership to improve in this area. My one gripe about leadership books though is they often lack tactical advice new managers can implement immediately. In this book, John provides a comprehensive framework for you to use and measure yourself against. This is required reading for anyone who wants to manage people on my team.
- Put your leadership interest on your manager’s radar. If you haven’t already, let your manager know you’re interested in taking on more leadership responsibilities and/or becoming a manager. By now, you’ve also taken a couple steps to show them you’re taking this seriously.
- Try to manage an intern or part-time employee. This requires further coordination with your manager, but many companies often get summer interns. This is a great low-stakes environment for everyone (intern, manager, and you) to see how you like it and do.
- Look for Strategic Projects. Part of being a good manager is influencing people who don’t report to you directly. A good way to practice is to work on large, strategic projects. Aim to lead them, or parts of a broader program to manage.
- Step Into the Light. If all of the above goes well, it’s time to assume a formal leadership role and see how it goes. Execute on John Maxwell’s 5 Levels, take any formal training your company offers, read books, and readily accept feedback.
Going through the above progressions can help you decide if you should take the first steps in becoming a manager or not. For example, I once had a girl on my team who was getting her MBA part-time. She was extremely talented and ambitious, and once she graduated she brought up an interest in managing people. We went out for coffee and I dug into her interest, which essentially boiled down to her friends and family telling her she should manage people because she has an MBA. I suggested she read the John Maxwell book and report back to me. She came back a few weeks later and acknowledged leadership isn’t for her and that she was responding to external pressure. Think about how much unnecessary pain we both would have gone through had she not read that book.
Why Finding it Out Early in Your Career is Good
There are a few reasons why you should find out if management is for you sooner than later.
- You don’t waste time later in your career. Who wants to be 15 years into his or her career on the leadership track and realize they’re miserable and ineffective? The pain will be more significant for you, your people, and your executives.
- The stakes are lower. Assuming a team lead role where you manage 2-3 people in the first decade of your career provides lower stakes than assuming a director role managing managers and 30+ people.
- You can always come back to it. If you like leadership, this doesn’t mean you have to manage people the rest of your career. But it’s a skill you can always fall back on. For example, one of my top managers wanted to move into our product organization. This meant giving up managing people as she stepped back into an individual contributor role to learn the ropes of a new function. Two years later, she’s still in our product organization and managing people again.
- Focus. Knowing what you don’t like is almost as powerful as knowing what you do like. It allows you to focus on other areas. For example, maybe you’re an account manager but want to become more technical. Or, maybe you’re a Technical Account Manager and want to become a Senior TAM, etc. Go ahead and pursue those things with greater focus.
Becoming a manager is one of the most fulfilling roles you can hold in any career, but it’s far from glamorous. Management is a function where competence and interest are paramount given the challenges you will face. If you enjoy it and are a terrible manager, you won’t be successful. If you’re good at it and don’t enjoy it, you’ll be miserable.
There’s no right or wrong answer, just clarity.