Who’d want to be a manager? Practically no millennials, if recent studies are anything to go by. In fact, only 1% of millennials aspire to manage a team, according to research.
A study by the business school Audienca found that 79% of employees surveyed actively didn’t want to become managers. Among these, 61% were worried about stress, 56% were put off by the admin and 42% thought they would not receive the recognition they deserved. This isn’t, however, a case of flighty employees who lack commitment. UK research data shows that more than half of millennials (63%) are keen to pursue new opportunities with their employer rather than job-hopping.
So what does career progression look like if it doesn’t involve climbing a traditional management hierarchy? Millennials make up around 50% of the global workforce. As workplaces evolve to suit another generation, new ways to forge a career—without having to be responsible for organising and leading employees—are emerging.
1. Build your expertise
In the knowledge economy, one way to make sure you are valued at your company without becoming a manager is to build your expertise.
Sandro Vicente did this by becoming a technical expert. Vicente is a software engineer at fintech company Smarkets. He decided that managing a team wasn’t for him after trying it earlier in his career. He found the admin, the pressure and the people management unfulfilling, and realised where he really found job satisfaction. “What really gets me ticking is the technical parts,” he said.
He has used his industry expertise and technical knowledge to reposition himself as an expert in introducing new technologies and finding solutions. At his company, Vicente says, this knowledge is vital. “These are critical components. They need a good understanding of technology and fortunately I’m in a position to help with that,” he said.
Vicente sees his role continuing to evolve, helped along by company culture: Smarkets is open to employees bringing value as individual contributors, rather than as managers. “I’m trying to migrate more to the analytical side,” he said. This means that rather than working with, and constantly learning, new technologies he would model pathways for implementing them at work.
“As I get older, I think that this is going to be where I get my value. Not getting tied to a technology but getting tied to the theory that’s necessary for solving a problem,” said Vicente.
For those in non-technical fields, becoming an expert will mean building knowledge and skills that are integral to your company or profession, which make you highly valuable as an individual employee. Depending on your job, this might involve taking on extra study or training, changing departments to grow your company knowledge or joining organisations and industry associations relevant to your field.
2. Take a flexible approach
Casey Paul was also keen to progress by focusing on building skills and on her creative output, not managing others. Paul, who works in marketing, explains that she chose not to move into management full-time. “I wanted to focus on enhancing my skills, developing further knowledge and keeping my options open in terms of career development,” she said.
When she put this to her company, the agency Kaizen, management was open to the idea. She now works as marketing manager, although she says her title refers to the parts of the business she manages rather than managing a team.
However, her role does involve occasional people management “when projects allow for it”, something that Paul welcomes. “I still want to focus on being creative, and actively being involved in the work I do, but I am also open to change,” she said. “The idea of managing someone or managing a team can be daunting. But the right training, and being confident and comfortable in what you do, can naturally help with that.”
Looking to the future, she sees her role evolving with a focus on building multiple skills such as “experience and expertise” rather than just the ability to manage others.
3. Become a company strategist
Software engineer Valerio Ponte was managing ten employees when he decided the role was not for him. He preferred using his technical skills directly in projects to leading a team.
He went to his manager to discuss the problem, and they decided to create a role that played to his strengths. “We came up with a role that in my company was called ‘architect’, which was more about being in charge of finding solutions rather than defining how teams behave,” he said.
At the time, stepping away from his managerial responsibilities was possible because he was working for a small company that valued his strategic skill and wanted to find him another role rather than lose a key employee. Instead of managing a team, his role as a strategist blended a mix of senior responsibilities, including working on core business issues, coordinating projects and crossing over between teams and even departments.
His position also includes some people management. Ponte, who now works in a strategic role at Smarkets, says that although he no longer manages staff in the sense of planning their work “and spending my day in front of a spreadsheet”, his role as a strategist requires him to be available as a mentor. This means using management skills, such as coaching and enabling career growth, to help more junior colleagues achieve tasks or understand how products work. “You have to find time and make yourself available if one of your co-workers needs help,” he said.
For Ponte, there are a couple of drawbacks to not following the traditional manager route. He feels it may limit his career in terms of salary or where he works because not all companies value seniority at a certain level for non-managers. While he’s happy with the career choices he’s made, he admits things might have to change in the future. “Is there a possibility eventually that I will need to move into a role that is less hands on? Yeah, definitely, I think that could happen,” he said.
4. Become a collaborator
Alison Sturgess-Durden, a director at digital health company Mayden, was instrumental in setting up the company’s “self-organised” structure. In practice, this has meant cutting out line managers and focusing on “the idea of managing the work, not the people on the premises”.
Looking to the future of work, Sturgess-Durden believes that management hierarchies will continue to lose their value in the workplace for two reasons:
1. An evolving work structure.
Younger generations entering the workplace are changing the structure of work. “They’re looking for more collaborative working relationships, rather than that transactional parent-child type relationship,” she said. “They’re looking for network organisations and adult-to-adult working relationships.”
2. The economic outlook.
Experts predict the world of work is going to become a lot more Vuca—volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—something the Covid-19 pandemic has given many companies a taste of. In this professional context, she says, “a rigid hierarchy is not going to be flexible enough”.
She recommends that employees concentrate on building skills that make you a good collaborator, rather than a good manager, to progress your career. This means focusing on the way you work with others instead of how many people are in your team.
“The skills that are going to be needed in the workplace, and are going to be highly valued in the workplace, and therefore are going to see you progress, are not your ability to manage and control subordinates,” she said. “It’s much more about your ability to influence and work well with peers and collaborators and other experts.”
5. Personal power: what’s yours?
A working world that’s less focused on traditional hierarchy is good news for those who don’t want to be managers. It means more pathways to career progression are opening up that don’t involve managing a team. As Sturgess-Durden says, “What’s really interesting and exciting is that more and more organisations are looking at these different ways of organising.”
What’s the secret to career progression in a world with no managers? Building personal, rather than positional, power. Whether it’s your expertise, strategic skills or relationships with others—managerial or collaborative—the key is identifying your individual strengths in the workplace. This way, you develop the unique skills you need to bring value and influence to your role in the company. “These are the skills that are going to see people progressing in the workplace,” Sturgess-Durden said. “More and more workplaces are waking up to this.”
So ask yourself: what’s my personal power? Play to your strengths and you’ll go far, whatever career path you choose to follow.
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