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I don’t want to be a manager. How can I still advance in my career?

REUTERS/Michaela Rehle
Not everybody wants to climb the corporate ladder.
  • Scott Steinberg
By Scott Steinberg

Work Etiquette Columnist

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Q: I’m being groomed for a leadership role at work, but I don’t enjoy managing people. How can I grow at a company and in my career if I don’t want to be a leader?

Dear Lone Wolf,

So you’ve paid the cost, but don’t want to be the boss? Fair enough: You can choose to manage projects or become a subject matter expert instead.

To take the former path, attach yourself to high-impact or high-profile new ventures that are priorities for the organization, and push your skill set, comfort zone, and capabilities in new directions. For example: You might help your law or accounting firm launch its debut blog and editorial strategy; help your software company roll out its first-ever hardware device; or help your marketing firm transition to campaigns powered by analytics, not gut instinct.

If you can prove to your employer that you take to tasks readily and excel at discipline, multitasking, time management, and problem-solving, good things will happen. For instance, you’ll:

  • Carve out a level of respect and autonomy in your role
  • Become a go-to resource
  • Cultivate talents you can add to your professional toolkit
  • Enjoy greater recognition from clients and colleagues
  • Better position yourself for new opportunities when they inevitably arise

The second way to advance in your career without becoming a leader is to make yourself indispensable to the enterprise, and so damn good that not only can others not help but notice you, but you can’t be replaced.

If someone else can easily perform a task, deliver similar work product, and doesn’t mind managing people as much, your days are already numbered.

But if you’re the salesperson that clients adore, the engineer with the specialized knowledge to with advanced technologies, or the only one who’s learned to speak Mandarin fluently at the office, your services will be in demand, and you can often charge a premium for them.

In essence, the more that you provide services and solutions that are difficult and expensive to replicate, but serve as a crucial link in the value chain for your enterprise, the more chances to advance (and appreciation) you’ll enjoy.

Of course, becoming your firm’s go-to cybersecurity pro or expert on complex regulatory concerns isn’t simple. Getting ahead doesn’t just mean investing in gaining additional skills, learning, and experience today. It also requires you to proactively seek out the talents and training today that will be in demand tomorrow.

In the end, being assigned to manage increasingly large groups of people and tasks remains the most common way to advance in today’s job market. But these days, there are many ways to reach the top, several of which can involve taking the road less traveled. Consider it a welcome development for those who’d prefer not having to wonder if John’s going to call in sick the day before deliverables are due, or Jane’s forgotten to fax those @#$! TPS reports again.

Scott Steinberg is the author of The Business Etiquette Bible.

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