Blog Post

Why You Need an Alternative to the Management Career Path

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article was originally published under Jeff Miller’s column "The Science of Workplace Motivation" on Inc.com.

During one of my first corporate learning roles, a senior executive at our company approached me about the most talented developer in the organization. The employee in question was in line for a promotion that required managing a large team, and the executive asked if I could put together a management training to help him get to the next level. Easy enough, I thought -- until we sat down for our first meeting.

As I asked the developer questions about his role, aspirations and concerns, I started to sense some hesitation. And that's when I asked a simple question that I've realized all too often gets ignored.

"Do you want to be manager?"

He hesitated, and then said, "Not really."

He was one of the top employees at the company, and since our conversation, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the role management should play in the modern workplace. Because the truth is, if you want to cultivate a culture of great management at your organization, then you also need to make it optional.

Questioning the Ladder to Management

A couple years ago, New York Times columnist Arthur C. Brooks observed a similar phenomenon to my encounter with our company's top developer. "People generally have a 'bliss zone,' a window of creative work and responsibility to match their skills and passions," he writes. "But then the problems start. Those who love being part of teams and creative processes are promoted to management."

Writers become editors. Players become coaches. Professors become deans. And then they all spend a lot of time reminiscing about when they were able to write, play or teach. As Brooks writes, "Why don't people stop rising when they're happy?... We incorrectly infer that promotions will equal greater satisfaction."

I'll take his question one step further. Why do we limit "rising" to mean rising to management?

The developer at my company wasn't alone. In fact, most American workers don't want to manage people. A CareerBuilder survey found that a mere 34 percent of workers aspire to leadership positions. Why? The majority (52 percent) are simply satisfied in their current positions. What's more, many people who are already in management positions would rather be doing something else. In Managing for People Who Hate Managing , publisher Berrett-Koehler found that only 43 percent of managers are comfortable in their jobs, and less than one in three (32 percent) enjoy managing.

Offer Option B

You've probably heard the saying, "People leave managers, not companies." And it's no surprise. If a large portion of managers are disengaged, their employees will be disengaged, too. A Gallup study revealed that one in two people have left their jobs to get away from a manager at some point in their careers.

If we were more discerning about who we promoted to management, and how we structured team hierarchies, I imagine this statistic would go down significantly. And this doesn't mean you can't promote talented people. There are many ways people can remain influential individual contributors at an organization and continue to hone their expertise. For example, they can act as one-on-one mentors, they can offer training to new employees, they can lead internal committees or they can become "fellows" at your company dedicated to researching their respective fields.

If you consider management as its own unique set of skills outside of the general role description, you'll not only increase engagement but you'll also directly impact the bottom line. Gallup found companies that hire managers based on talent realize a 30 percent increase in employee engagement score, a 48 percent increase in profitability, a 22 percent increase in productivity and a 19 percent decrease in turnover.

Ask Why First

If an employee is thriving in their current role, how do you know if they would make a great manager, too? In my mind, strong managers share one foundational quality: They inherently put people first.

A great manager is humble -- they're willing to take the blame and pass the credit. They're able to set clear goals, and create an environment where people hold themselves accountable (instead of one where the manager has to hold them accountable). They're resilient when projects get derailed and turn to problem-solving, not complaining. They build cultures of trust where communication, open dialogue and transparency reign. And last but not least, they motivate people to achieve their full potential.

But most importantly, they want to be managers. So before you go down a rabbit hole analyzing your top performers' management skills, ask them a simple question -- "Why do you want to be a manager?" -- and hope for a simple answer: "I want to make the people on my team better every day."

Photo: Creative Commons

Related Resources

Want to keep learning? Explore our products, customer stories, and the latest industry insights.

A New Poseidon Adventure: Flipping Succession Planning Upside Down

Blog Post

A New Poseidon Adventure: Flipping Succession Planning Upside Down

Organizations make significant investments in efforts to hire the right candidates – the people who have the right experience and cultural fit. By carefully managing the performance and potential of these people over time, the organization can grow its leadership pipeline, keep a steady inventory of needed skills and competencies and remain nimble in the face of change (which we have plenty of all around us these day) – all of which can have serious impact on the bottom line. However, much of this pie-in-the-sky stuff relies on being able to locate and cultivate high-potential and high-performing talent across the board. Without an integrated succession management solution, recognizing and developing talent can be an ever-elusive process. The questions we are seeing asked today include: does the traditional top-down approach to succession management still make enough of a difference? Does managing succession for a slim strata of senior executives take full advantage of the kinds of talent data we now have at our fingertips? It doesn’t have to be so. Succession management can be an interactive process between senior leadership, managers and employees at all levels of the organization. And, if we trust them, we can actually let employees become active participants in their own career development. (Shudder.) Career Management (Succession Planning Flipped Upside Down) This "bottom-up" approach is gaining momentum because who better to tell us about employee career path preferences than employees themselves. Organizations actually have talent management and other HR systems in place that allow for collecting and analyzing a whole slew of data around: Career history Career preferences Mobility preferences Professional and special skills Education achieved Competency ratings Performance scores Goal achievement Training and certifications Etc. In short, pretty much everything we’d want to know to make well-informed succession planning and talent pooling decisions. For some, the leap is simply putting some power into the employee’s hands. The talent management system of 2011 is capable of displaying a clear internal career path for employees and then, on the basis of all that data bulleted out above, showing a "Readiness Gap" – what do you need to do to make the step to the next level? And if your talent management environment comes armed with a real Learning Management System, you can take it to the next level with a dynamically generated development plan that gets the employee on the right path to actually closing those gaps. Faster development, faster mobility. Organizations that seriously favor internal mobility don’t just make employees stick on pre-defined career paths – they can search for ANY job in the company and check their Readiness levels. I might be in accounting today, but what I really want to do is move to marketing. Giving employees the chance to explore various career avenues within the organization helps assure that "water finds its level" – that is, that the right people with the right skills and the right levels of motivation and engagement find the right job roles internally. Employee participation is key, but make no mistake – managers play an important role in this interactive process. They must be prepared to provide career coaching, identify development opportunities and recommend employees for job openings. The candid discussions require that employees have open access to information so they can best understand the criteria necessary to move to the next level. A Two-Way Street Employee-driven career management is just one tool. The more traditional top-down approach to succession management remains indispensable. But organizations that value talent mobility and the ability to be able to shift and mobilize talent resources quickly will find that attention to career pathing can be vital. For employees, of course, the impacts are immediate and include boosted levels of engagement, higher retention, increased productivity and more.

The Hidden Costs of Ignoring Your Talent Management Strategy

Blog Post

The Hidden Costs of Ignoring Your Talent Management Strategy

Building and maintaining a successful company hinges on having the right people to execute projects and drive results. People, we hear time and again, are your company's most valuable asset. But their success — and HR's ability to recruit, engage and retain them — depends on HR pros who are strategic decision-makers, armed with the proper tools to let them excel at their jobs. Modern HR professionals manage much more than payroll and benefits. But their technology tools, in many cases, haven't evolved past basic productivity software like email or Microsoft Word. HR simply can't be strategic with old-school tools that reduce people to statistics and give little insight into what the numbers mean. Emails and spreadsheets were not designed to deliver meaningful insights into people's performance, suggest when employees should be promoted or highlight skills gaps in a company. For that, HR needs a broader, more strategic set of talent management tools, which lets professionals manage every aspect of the workforce, from training and performance reviews to collaboration and succession planning. Yet, research shows that less than 25% of companies use a unified, holistic approach to their talent management. The Real Costs of "Doing Nothing" As a Talent Management Strategy The critical relationship between business strategy and HR strategy too often gets overlooked by senior leadership. While it may seem like the company is saving money by managing recruiting, training, performance and succession via manual and paper-based processes, in reality it’s costing your business more than you know. For example: Without a talent management strategy, a company with 2,000 employees is losing almost $2 million every year in preventable turnover alone. Businesses that don’t invest in learning suffer from decreased employee performance and engagement to such a degree that they can expect to realize less than half the median revenue per employee. That’s a direct impact on the business. In employee performance management, organizations without a focused strategy waste up to 34 days each year managing underperformers and realize lower net income. To learn more about the business impact of talent management and how to start building out your strategy, check out the eBook Why Your Nonexistent Talent Management Strategy is Costing You Money (And How to Fix It) and register for the March 19th webinar, Building the Business Case for Talent Management.

The Return of the Moderate Merit Budget – Wreaking Havoc on Pay for Performance

Blog Post

The Return of the Moderate Merit Budget – Wreaking Havoc on Pay for Performance

With the economy now on steadier ground, most organizations have returned to administering a merit budget to the pre-recession levels of 3 to 3.5%. In the years immediately following the economic downturn, many merit budgets were eliminated entirely or were reduced significantly and reserved for a select segment of the employee population. Pay for performance has become a necessity for many organizations that are expected to accomplish more with fewer resources. I often get asked: "How can I truly award my top performers with such a limited budget? Should I do so at the expense of my ’Meets Expectations’ performers? What if I need to retain my ’Meets Expectations’ performers and giving them 0% to 2% increase puts me at great risk for turnover? But if I don’t recognize my top performers, don’t I risk losing them...?" These are difficult questions to answer, however you can determine the best solution for your organization by considering the following: Are your employees paid at market pay levels? Is your organization’s performance management process mature? Does your organization have other compensation programs in place to reward top performers (e.g. variable pay)? Market Pay If turnover is a concern, and your organization needs to maintain ’bench strength’ in order to achieve its strategic objectives, your biggest priority should be to ensure that you are paying your employees at market pay levels. Why? Historically, as the labor market strengthens, organizations become vulnerable in terms of losing people. Hiring and onboarding replacement talent is not only costly to the organization, but can also cause dissension among existing employees since new hires may be getting paid more. Be sure to stay abreast of market pay levels and trends, and use the merit budget to correct disparities. Performance Management Process Organizations vary significantly in terms of the maturity of their performance management process. Closely examine your organization’s process and look for ways to improve it. If there is a perception that one management team is an ’easier grader’ than the others, the process is inherently flawed and any pay for performance program will not be viewed as credible and fair by employees. A good place to start is to get a calibration process in place and communicate broad guidelines on expected distribution ratings. Variable Pay Programs Variable pay programs (e.g. bonuses) have become increasingly more popular across all industries and career levels. These programs provide the opportunity for employees to share in the organization’s success while not adding to fixed payroll costs. Some plans have an individual performance component which can be a very effective means to recognize top performers. However, in order for this type of program to be successful, individual goals and targets must be well documented and communicated. Again, this is largely based on the maturity of the organization’s performance management process which takes time to evolve. What are the best steps to avoid wreaking havoc on your pay for performance process? First ensure your pay levels are keeping pace with the market Continue to evolve your performance programs with calibration among managers and a rigorous goal setting process Promote variable pay plans to reward high performers without adding to fixed pay roll costs It’s not always an easy journey but, in the end, it’s best to use a measured approach that is based on business needs and a realistic assessment of your current programs and processes.

Schedule a personalized 1:1

Talk to a Cornerstone expert about how we can help with your organization’s unique people management needs.

© Cornerstone 2022
Legal