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

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

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