Since starting Practical Works, I’ve spoken with a lot of folks who are at a crossroads in their career and aren’t sure which way to go. Do they become a manager, or do they continue to pursue excellence in their craft? For a lot of people, this can be a very nebulous, stressful decision. In fact, there are only a couple people I know who’ve known without a shadow of a doubt which path they wanted to take (I was not one of them, surprisingly!).
After hearing from so many people struggling with this decision, I’ve told each of them the same few things. Hopefully, these will be helpful to you if you’re considering whether to become a manager or an expert craftsperson:
Management is like starting over completely.
A lot of people nod when they hear this, but I still see a lot of new managers get really surprised by just how incompetent and unsure of themselves they are at first. For instance, being someone’s manager in a 1:1 is way different than being the person venting to their manager in a 1:1. Learning the ins and outs of an organization - what motivates different people, who you can ally with on things, who are blockers and how to navigate them, etc. - so that you can do your job is a huge shift from delivering a wireframe or some code. Coming up with processes for things like recruiting instead of simply participating in them can be tough. And finally learning that everything you do or say is being watched and listened to more carefully than you think is necessary can be a real tough thing to adjust to.
It’s an entirely new job with a totally different way of working than you’re used to.
Not becoming a manager limits your upward mobility.
Every time I hear a company claim that they’ve figured out how to parallelize the manager and contributor (non-manager) tracks, it turns out to be pretty untrue. Sure, a lot of companies nowadays do have some parallelization in their tracks. But ask them who at the company is VP or Director-level equivalent and not a manager, and I’ll bet cash money that 99.9% of the time that person or role does not exist (and is probably not even defined).
And even if it is defined, moving up in your capacity as a contributor is, at least right now, exponentially harder than moving up as a manager. Mostly this is because creating new senior management roles is a need-based activity. As companies grow, you need more managers, and managers to manage them, etc. As a result, the bar is much lower to become a director-level manager than it is to become a contributor of the same level (if that role even exists!). Whereas you might become a director (or more) in a few years of being a manager at a growing company, it's likely that you may only progress a single level or two as a contributor.
Maybe this will change someday (I realized toward the end of my time at BuzzFeed that I was making a similar mistake with our roles), but right now if anyone tells you that you can achieve the same level of pay and authority as a contributor, don’t believe it. This isn’t a reason to become a manager by itself, but is definitely something to consider.
Consider whether you want to be accountable.
This is the core piece of advice I give to people considering management (and even people who want to rise past certain points as contributors). Becoming a manager or a very senior contributor means becoming accountable for all the things that go along with that role. Looking back on my career choices, the driving force for me was a desire to be accountable. When I became a manager, it was because I’d been on some poorly run teams and wanted to be in a position where not only could I fix things, but if things weren’t working I’d be the one on the hook. Similarly, I then wanted to be responsible for an entire design org, and started looking for that role (which I found at BuzzFeed). And now, I’m looking for work that lets me influence and work across many departments and functions.
Even for people who are already managers, it’s important to carefully consider whether you want the new responsibility that comes with a promotion to director, VP or something else. Just like moving from contributor to manager, each level of management has the potential to be vastly different than the one before it. The Peter Principle is the result of people taking roles for which they don’t actually want to be accountable, and wind up not performing well because they aren’t putting the time in to learn and become great at their new role.
No one is ever “ready.”
I hear from a lot of people who talk about not feeling prepared to take a step into management. They worry they won’t do a good job. They talk about maybe trying to get more management experience in their current role somehow and trying it later. My advice if this is you: not only should you take the leap, but the fact that you care whether or not you’ll do a good job is a strong indicator that you will, in fact, do a good job. The people I’ve seen do the best as new managers are the people who sweat whether or not they’re doing right by their team, the department and the company. Those are the folks that are more open to feedback, look at things from all sides and learn the most the fastest.
Also, there’s no amount of preparation you can do that will fully prepare you for the reality of managing people and all that entails. As with many things, the best experience is direct experience. So if you’re making a decision about managing people or not (and think you want to), you should go for it.
You can always go back.
When I first started managing people, I had my first 1:1 with my own manager, Randy. He asked me how it was going and I told him, “To be honest, I could be really bad at this. Or I might learn I don’t like it. So I’m kind of nervous.” Randy thought about it for a moment and said something that stuck with me ever since: “That’s okay,” he said. “Let’s just keep talking about it. If it turns out you’re not good at it, or hate it, that’s okay. You can always swap back to being a designer.”
That was the first time I realized that becoming a manager wasn’t a life-sentence, an irreversible career choice. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few people I know move into management only to move back into design or engineering or product work. Sometimes, you have to try something to see if it’s right for you. But it’s not like you lose all your past expertise and experience just because you try something new. Just make sure to check in with yourself regularly and be honest with yourself and others, and everything will turn out alright.