“You’re our top programmer. Congratulations, we are promoting you to Manager.”
“If the company is serious about promoting me to be a manager, I’m going to have to leave. I came here for the interesting technical work, not to manage people.”
Two real quotes. The first is from a Vice President in a bank, spoken to a staff member who was considered a flight risk in an attempt to retain them. (Spoiler: it didn’t work).
The second is from a data analyst in the Risk Management function of a huge financial institution who, after finishing several levels of higher education in very complicated math chose the role because of the breadth and complexity of the problems they’d get to work on. Long story short – the company did pressure them to move “upwards” (in other words, the company didn’t listen to what this individual said they did and did not want from their career) and so they eventually did leave.
How is it that there is such a gap between what the individuals want and how the company thinks they should be developed and rewarded?
Here’s how: Not everyone wants to move up.
Career Path or Career Lattice?
I’ve written about this before, from the perspective that sideways, cross-functional or “developmental” moves sometimes aren’t enough to satisfy the high potentials – the people who see themselves in the C-suite one day.
But there are others who yearn to be left out of the succession conversations.
Who, given their preferences, would tuck in and do the technical work forever.
For whom “development” can mean a company funded course or program that will enable them to go deeper into their preferred technical subject matter.
And for whom people leadership is too big and too undesirable a stretch.
The Skills Gap
There are many possible tools in the human competency toolbox, and very few of us have been blessed with all of them. Most of us have a small number of very well-developed kinds of intelligence, a small (hopefully) number of significantly less-well-developed attributes and a swath of other characteristics that aren’t towering strengths but aren’t so absent as to cause us trouble.
Think of the brilliant sales person who struggles to complete their expense paperwork. The genius researcher who’d rather do anything other than make a presentation in front of a crowd. The action-oriented project leader whose impatience causes them to overlook bringing key people along with the plan. All are examples of people who have very specific “zones of genius” as well as very definite kinds of work they’d strongly prefer to avoid. For some, the gap between the areas of strength and the areas that are less well developed isn’t huge, meaning they can stretch into uncomfortable territory without too much trouble. For others, though, a dominant aptitude or type of intelligence is so strong, so brilliant, that it’s a much more difficult stretch to access other competencies.
Anyone can stretch. But the stretching is most likely to be successful if it’s stretching that the individual wants to do (even if it’s uncomfortable).
Leaders from Unlikely Places
I led a workshop for a group of fifty actuaries where the topics included career paths and how best to structure the department. The VP was in the room, and at one point someone asked him to share his journey.
“I was never the most talented actuary in any department I was ever in,” he said. “I was competent, just good enough to not get us in trouble, but clearly not a shining technical star. What I was good at, though, was helping my co-workers solve interpersonal problems and get ready for big meetings. I loved all of that. And thankfully my boss noticed. So rather than focus on improving my technical skills, he sponsored me into the company’s management training stream. It’s not what I envisioned when I went to school, but it’s been the perfect career for me.”
Not the best technical contributor. And hadn’t “put in the time” such that management was an inevitable and unavoidable next step. But displayed both aptitude and interest in management. The company responded and it’s worked out well for everyone.
What if people were grown, developed and promoted based on a combination of what they’re good at, what they want, and what the organization needs?
Share the Career Conversation
If we are self-aware, we can choose careers that allow us to work in alignment with our most accessible strengths. But career management is only partly making good choices. It’s also advocating for oneself in alignment with those choices – a skill set in and of itself.
Ironic, isn’t it?
It is incumbent on the individual to know what they want – and what they don’t – and how they are best able to contribute. Companies can’t afford to let people tuck in and stay in one lane for long any more – the days of “I’ve been in this job for x years” are long gone. So if an upward move to management isn’t of interest, you might need to help your company see how you can grow and what you want to learn.
The company owns the assessment of how to use the work that’s available to develop the people. Read THAT again. Rather than mete out work like the meagre meal in Oliver Twist, what if work was reframed as being the means by which people are grown and given opportunities?
Moving a technical leader into a people leadership role can be done, and has been done successfully – but it has to be a collaborative process that starts with an assessment of aptitude and interest and follows with a clear plan of support and learning, aligned with what’s going to best support the company’s goals along the way.
How to Figure Out Where and How you Lead Best
A useful tool in anyone’s career management kit is the Sparketype™ assessment. Created by author and entrepreneur Jonathan Fields after years of having people ask him “what should I be doing with my life?” the Sparketype™ reveals the key characteristics (or “essential DNA”) of your ideal work. While the self-awareness that comes from knowing your Sparketype™ might provoke a career change, more often we find that it can inspire a reframing of an individual’s current work. And it’s a tool that can give organizations new perspectives and language for their purposes. Knowing that “Performer” is part of what lights a person up might make it easier to decide who gives the presentation at the National Sales Meeting (and the Scientists will be grateful!).