how can employees move up if they don’t want to manage people?

Traditionally, to move up professionally, people eventually need to move into a management role. But what should companies do with top performers who want to grow but who aren’t interested in managing people?

After all, not every good employee wants to manage people – and if there’s one thing that the legions of bad managers out there demonstrate, it’s that not everyone is good at managing people. But companies often don’t provide clear career paths for people who don’t want to manage. At too many companies, if you want to move up, you’re going to need to lead a team, even if that’s not your particular talent.

Not only does this leave people who don’t want to manage frustrated and dissatisfied, but it increases the changes that a company will have reluctant and outright inept managers on staff. Managing people is an entirely different skill set than other types of work; the skills it takes to be a great accountant or programmer are different than the skills needed to build and lead a team. When you force people to manage others in order to grow professionally, you end up with poorly managed teams being led by people who were much better at whatever they were doing that landed them a management role to begin with.

And if you just keep people who don’t want to manage in their original roles without offering them a development track, you’re probably not going to retain them long-term. If they’re just left to stagnate in the same position, they’re eventually likely to seek new challenges somewhere else. But if they’re not going to manage, what might their career path with you look like?

One possible answer: Consider creating a “subject matter expert” track, one that’s explicitly different from a management track. People on the subject matter expert track would be encouraged to develop an increasingly deep or specialized knowledge in their subject area, become a go-to expert on specific issues, mentor others and act as a resource to colleagues, and possibly manage projects rather than people.

People on this track can show leadership without managing. They can share their knowledge, service as a resource to others, contribute input, help to solve problems, and act as an exemplar of your company’s values. Those things will go a long way toward building their value, and will help you retain and benefit from the knowledge and skills of long-time, experienced employees.

When companies don’t provide career paths for people who don’t want to manage, they’re more likely to lose good employees — and plus, when you force people to manage others in order to grow professionally, you end up with poorly managed teams being led by people who were better at doing something else.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s Fast Track blog .

{ 55 comments… read them below }

  1. Jerzy*

    My husband is a programmer and has what might be considered to be a “typical programmer personality.” He’s not super social, can be a bit abrasive, and has zero desire to manage people, despite being in the field for more than a decade. He is always saying that if he wants to move up in his field, he’s going to have to be a manager, but all he wants to do is work on code. Recently, he’s been put in charge of mentoring a couple of new hires, and while it didn’t come with a promotion, it has given him the opportunity to show his leadership skills and has made him of greater value to his employer.

    1. The IT Manager*

      What I do not understand, though, is if a coder just wants to be a coder what’s the problem with that? He can reach the pinnacle of being a senior programmer without becoming a leader and then just continue working at that level. He eventually doesn’t get more than cost-of-living because he’ll reach the top of the senior coder pay band, but if he doesn’t want to manage people he’s reached the top spot at his company why can’t he stay until retirement?

      Maybe my vision is skewed. My dad got the top job at a public utility before he turned 30 and he was never promoted again. There wasn’t any higher for him to go in the county, and he happily stayed there until retirement so I have no issue with people topping out at their goals and staying where they are happy.

      1. Blamange*

        You’re correct, your vision is not skewed. It’s part of the whole ‘my career is stagnate if I am not moving up’ feeling I guess.

      2. Jerzy*

        I think it also may be the way his specific company operates as well. They are very particular about who they offer senior programmer roles to, and most of those are tied into managerial roles. Also, the difference in pay between a programmer and manager is pretty significant, and so that becomes a sticking point for him as well.

        And I agree that many people, myself included, want to keep moving up in their careers, and management does seem to be a big part of that. Unlike my husband, I am eagerly seeking opportunities to manage a team.

        1. The IT Manager*

          Well, I just used the term senior coder as shorthand. If senior coder = development lead = people manager, then maybe someone who only want to code tops out as a mid-level coder. But I see you say he would like the pay of manager but not the people management duties of a manager; that will be hard to reconcile.

        2. einahpets*

          My husband is also a programmer, and I would say that your husband’s experience is probably more company specific than industry specific. My husband has been asked a few times in the past if he was interested in going the manager route and he has always said no to no real detriment.

          His manager has said a few times that he is getting to the upper range of his position’s salary, but my husband isn’t bothered as he already makes a significant amount (to non-programmer me). But I guess the limit is a little flexible because the man got a 10% range this year…

          He has also been asked a few times to mentor new hires and be the lead for a specific project timeline, and he has always been happy to help — he just isn’t interested in managing others day to day and wants to be able to code mostly. I would say that I think mentoring new people in a department doesn’t automatically mean managing track, but I am considered “knowledgeable in my field / my company’s policies enough to be a mentor / project lead” track.

          1. BeenThere*

            That would be my description of a technical lead, which is exactly where I want to go :)

      3. Joe*

        I think there are a couple of factors at play here with coders that make this problematic:

        1) Many coders really like learning and doing new things, and aren’t content to just do the same thing year after year. So if there’s not a regular stream of new stuff, they’ll become dissatisfied. This one is not prohibitive, because you can learn new stuff while in the same role (a senior coder today is not using the same tools and technologies of a senior coder 3 years ago), but having limited growth potential will be a turnoff for many coders.

        2) Because of the rapid expansion of technology in the workplace over the last 20 years, most coders have seen a constant progression of promotion. The amount of time it takes to become an expert compared to others is much smaller than it may have been in some other fields, and there was a significant period where the pool of entry-level people was growing quickly, so someone with just a couple of years of experience was considered “senior”. This means that people in these roles are used to regular promotion, and will keep looking for it even when they reach the cap.

        3) Similarly, pay rates for coders started high and got higher, and coders have expectations that their pay will continue to grow and grow. As a coder, my sense of salaries and raises was very skewed, and it took me a while to understand how that compared to other roles. At my first job out of college, I started out with a pretty good salary, and received increases totaling up to a 62% increase over my first three years. I came to understand after a little while that that was not just how things worked in the business world, and had more reasonable expectations. But people who have constantly been given more and more money come to expect that, and if they’re told that they’ve reached the highest salary band, and will only get cost of living increases from now on, they might feel like they’re being treated unfairly.

        I’m sure these things are not specific only to coders, but in my mind, they feel like a significant deviation from many other roles in business.

  2. Lizabeth*

    Right on…right on!!! Where was this when I was trying to explain to my dad that it was a GOOD THING for me to switch jobs in order to learn new stuff in my graphic design career path? He worked for the same company all his life, moving up into management pretty quickly. I should ask him if he preferred management or actually doing engineering…

    Unfortunately for most graphic designers, nobody does a development track, you’re on your own for that. And while I enjoy what I do; managing creative types is not something that’s in my DNA. Let someone else manage, I rather create pretty unicorns!

    1. esra*

      Design is a different beast, for sure. There really aren’t a ton of places to move up by staying in one spot. Even if you could move up at an agency or in-house, if you get stuck on the same projects, you still aren’t growing.

  3. AdAgencyChick*

    I think this has to be coupled with honesty with employees about when personal growth means salary growth, and when it doesn’t (and that applies to people who DO want to be managers, too).

    Let’s say I have an awesome teapot handle maker who absolutely does not want to manage people. Maybe I can help her grow and maintain her interest by having her transfer her skills to spout making. Or maybe she just wants to keep being the best teapot handle maker ever, and learning more and more nuances until she’s the subject matter expert, as Alison mentions. Thing is, if her expertise doesn’t add much to the bottom line, and I as her manager could get all the work I needed done by a less-experienced handle maker, I’m not going to want to pay her substantially more than I would pay the less-experienced person.

    Having just read “Lean In,” one of the things that stuck with me most was “it’s a jungle gym, not a ladder” — sometimes you are going to want to climb sideways and even down in salary and title in order to grow. Based on my experience with direct reports, not everyone understands that — and so they end up deciding to go for management positions they may not even really want.

    1. Bwmn*

      While I see the bottom line argument, from my industry (fundraising) – what I’ve seen happen to various fundraising experts (who have no management aspirations) is that they end up becoming consultants that balances out the rate they charge for their expertise without managing.

      While this trajectory makes sense for some individuals and particularly those working for really small, local organizations – it’s a model that’s held over even in large fundraising departments. Managing a fundraising team as opposed to assigning overflow tasks are very different skills. And in the worst case scenarios I’ve known of more than one fundraiser who ended up becoming the Executive Director of an organization only to “resign” and then take on a consulting fundraising position.

      1. Bwmn*

        ETA – a consulting fundraising position with the exactly nonprofit that they resigned from.

      2. writer/editor/fundraiser*

        This is my goal! (to become a consultant, that is, not to become an ED then quit–ugh!) I don’t want to manage people–not that I’m unfriendly or antisocial, I just don’t have any interest in it and I don’t think I’m very good at it. I like working with peers, I like learning from experts and then developing my own knowledge, and using my writing skills to translate tough expert content into language everyone can understand. I also am mightily sick of working in an office 9-5 and think I’m more productive setting my own schedule. But can’t figure out how to make the leap to consulting right away & actually guarantee I’ll make an income/have clients–seems to me I need to leave my current job, get a new full-time job, then use my contacts from old job to get me consulting work. I was a freelancer for a while before current job, but my spouse made more money then and we didn’t have kids, so I didn’t hustle that hard for work and as a result, didn’t get much. I also was doing less lucrative work copy-editing type work then–now I have grant writing & other fundraising skills under my belt, but again, just don’t know how to get clients while I’m working full time currently.

        1. Bwmn*

          I’m sure this varies from one nonprofit community to another, but how I often saw it happen was that one organization would change their fundraiser from full time to part-time (due to the person’s hourly wage being negotiated higher/ in transition of mentoring a replacement/ post maternity leave switch, etc.), or specifically take a part time position that would also allow them to consult on the side. Then if the consulting went well, a switch to full time consulting would happen or the part time gig would eventually negotiate their hourly wage even higher to still keep them partially on the books and that would in turn raise their consulting fees.

          The other way I’ve known fundraisers to become consultants is that they end up in roles with lots of management where they’ve struggled, gotten fired, and then become consultants. So….some stories are more deliberate, some less so. But in general, I don’t know lots of organizations that like to rely on fundraising consultants long term – so most true fundraising consultants I’m familiar with either end up as quasi part-time employees with a fairly set number of organizations or build in an “organizational planning/handing off/hiring development staff” concept.

    2. aebhel*

      This is the nice thing about being a librarian at a small public library system–there just aren’t a lot of management jobs out there, and the vast majority of us would prefer to continue being *actual librarians*, so staying a librarian for 30+ years without ever going into management is really pretty common. Which is fortunate for me, because I would utterly hate that job.

      1. Miss Pym*

        I know what you’re saying about the satisfactions of direct patron and collections work but those who have to fight the good fight at the admin /managerial levels to keep the funding flowing are no less “actual librarians”. No funding = no library.

      2. Marian the Librarian*

        I’m a teen services librarian and people outside of the field look at me like I’m insane when I say I never want to be in management. Our director used to be in youth services and now rarely interacts with patrons, and our head of youth services does reference but very little programming. That kind of job would be a nightmare to me because I became a librarian to work with teenagers, not to manage people who work with them!

      3. JP*

        I was there. When I started out, I thought, “I love being on the info desk! NO WAY would I EVER want to do any more than this!”

        Two years later I’m a manager and I love it. I still consider myself an “actual librarian”. I still work the info desk and talk to patrons. I feel I get to make a bigger impact this way.

  4. Sammie*

    The subject matter expert path is a good one. One thing to consider—having “visibility” (among senior staff, peers and clients) as the subject matter expert is really important if you want that promotion.

  5. Blamange*

    I’ve been promoted at work to key holder/shift leader and I am a follower not a leader. And I will have to manage people working on my shift when I am son open or closing. Nervous as hell, my first type of role I was always just a lackey before in previous jobs. Good advice as I’d like to move away from these type of roles.

  6. BRR*

    I love that this is being acknowledged. It’s frustrating to see someone good at making chocolate teapots get promoted to chocolate teapot manager solely because they make good chocolate tea pots. I’ve learned from this blog how management is a specific skill set it and of itself.

  7. lizzyIT*

    Yep, I’m the same way. I make a better right-hand Robin, then a Batman. I tried a supervisory role for a couple years, and I absolutely hated it, but I gave it my best shot. But at least now I know. I’m focusing on being an expert programmer instead.

    1. JM in England*

      I use a military analogy and say at interviews that I’m a better soldier than a general. Besides, without soldiers how do generals win their campaigns?

  8. Amber Rose*

    I like being a project manager, no people involved. I’ll coordinate with people to get stuff done, but I prefer working on my own mostly, doing my own thing. I’m a fair bit sheepish, I like getting instructions rather than giving them. :)

    1. einahpets*

      Yeah, I think this holds for my role as well. It has the term manager in it, but I am managing projects and coordinating with teams (in data management of clinical trials), and I like it just fine for now.

      1. CDM*

        I am a Lead Data Manager in clinical research too, and one of the things that appealed to me about working in this field was the ability to take on higher level roles without the people management, though personally I like giving orders more than taking them :)

        1. einahpets*

          Data managers unite! :) I work at a CRO, so there is even the added need for efficiency that I don’t think we could promote everyone with experience into a supervisor role that involves a large portion of non-billable work and actually keep within budget.

          I will say that my manager and all the managers in our department are AWESOME, and this article and discussion has me thinking it is most likely a result of having a pretty well established track for individuals who don’t want to be people managers or who aren’t great at supervising people. This is in contrast to what I’ve observed in a few other departments, where the manager roles really end up being for those with the most seniority.

  9. Who manages the managers?*

    We’ve thought about this in my organization and national surveys in my field show that many people are interested in ‘leadership” but not that many in “management”. Many days I feel the same. :)

    One push back for us is that some managers resent the idea of others being financially rewarded for what is seen as an easier career track. The challenge is to make the subject expert career track appropriately rigorous and selective. Longevity in the position can’t be the sole criteria. :)

    1. Tax Nerd*

      This. Managing people is hard work. I enjoy it, and I like to think I’m okay at it, but it takes time to learn how to manage (like reading this blog) and time to actually manage people. For me, it takes brainpower that is focused on finessing delicate conversations, trying to keep people motivated without having them spend a lot of time away from their regular duties, etc.

      I know people who want to crank out tax returns, but without managing people (or client relationships). But they still want the promotions and pay raises.

      If they find a niche, then becoming a subject matter expert might be worth it, but only if it’s a valuable niche. In my field, someone that becomes a taxation expert on fracking is going to go further than someone that becomes an expert on the taxation of retirement income for railroad employees.

  10. Fizzgig*

    I feel so grateful to work in an organization with a clearly defined “technical track” (akin to the subject matter expert position Alison refers to in her article). The technical track also mirrors the manager track to a certain level – much higher than what I would have originally expected coming into the organization. The impact of the structure really shows, too. There are people who have worked here for over 40 years in very high level technical positions, and their input is invaluable. I literally have whole panels of experts I can turn to at any time to help answer practically any question I could ever have. It’s so encouraging to know that I can continue working on what I love and actually be rewarded for it, versus being pushed down a career path that I know wouldn’t suit me.

    1. Kyrielle*

      This! I’ve just moved into an organization that does this (and also allows lateral moves, so people can learn more than one of the company’s technologies – say someone feels she’s tired of chocolate teapot handles, then she could work on spouts, or white chocolate handles, or get involved in designing the possible new line of chococlate coffee pots).

    2. periwinkle*

      My org has the same kind of track for technical types (heck, we might be working for the same huge engineering-oriented corporation). There isn’t a similar formalized track for non-technical people but there are many opportunities to become a designated subject matter expert or work on special projects. You can pursue opportunities and gain high visibility without having to move into personnel management. You can also change careers without leaving; I know people here who are on their 3rd or 4th career path without ever having left the org. Unfortunately, without the formal non-technical track you’ll still be limited in top salary unless you shift over to management.

    3. Abby*

      Same. I work in biotech, and it’s not uncommon for companies to have a technical (e.g. staff/principal scientists, research fellows) and managerial (team/group leader, directors) track, depending on the employee’s talents and desires. People in the upper tiers of the technical ladder are experts who provide invaluable insight on how projects are going. Granted, the senior scientists do typically manage one or two associates, but really never more than two, and largely because they simply can’t be running experiments and analyzing data at the same time.

  11. Gwen Soul*

    My workplace has finally realized not everyone wants to be a manager and has come up with 2 separate career paths that allow for data analyst to go down either one, or even switch over if they change their minds. And one is the SME path. :) It is great. Now if that had that for the non data people….

  12. Allison*

    The way I see it, if I like what I do, and I’m good at it, I want to keep doing it. If I become a manager, I wouldn’t be doing it, I’d be overseeing other people do it. I’d be going from meeting to meeting, discussing what my team is doing and getting input on what else they should be doing and what they could be doing better. I’d be looking at numbers that supposedly assess their productivity and quality of work. I’d be delegating, hiring, and firing. I might get to keep doing what I was doing before, but not as much because my job would be to manage, not do, and I may soon lose sight of what it’s like to be doing it. Besides, what does my competency at my current job have anything to do with my ability to manage other people doing my job?

    1. JM in England*

      This clicks with my mantra of “Stick to what you’re good at!”……………………

  13. Menacia*

    This is exactly the topic I was thinking of writing to you about. I had an opportunity to become a manager of an IT Helpdesk and turned it down. There were a few reasons why, I knew that I did not want to lose my technical skills, I enjoy the challenge of technical projects and figuring out problems, and also did not want to manage my coworkers. I really have no interest at all in managing anyone, even though I’ve fallen into a leader role on my team. My current manager has asked me recently, since they are now doing succession planning, if I would be interested in moving into a management role. She has a habit of blind-siding me with these types of things, so I said maybe but my focus is completing my undergraduate degree. Honestly, I don’t know what they would do if they made me a manager and lost me as a technical professional. I’ve been thrown into the role of project manager/release manager for specific technical projects, and I excel at that, but only if I don’t have to work with a lot of people. I tend to find those who don’t have my same work ethic to be a PITA to deal with, and I am not one to gently encourage someone to pick up the pace. ;) I think most people like my honesty, but I don’t think my type of honesty would work well in a management position, I’d probably be in HR every other day.

  14. JB*

    Yup, definitely wish there was a technical track ladder to climb where I work, but there isn’t. I’m a great technical person and I know that managing people is not my skill set. My manager has asked me if I was interested in management, and I initially said I wasn’t, but I didn’t like the feeling that I was purposefully halting my career by doing that. So my manager is grooming me and another dude for management. I weirdly both feel like I’d be a terrible manager (and that the other dude would be great), but also that I don’t want the other dude to “beat” me and get promoted without or before me.

    I think something other things that fed into my decision to say that I was interested in management are that I theoretically think that I could learn to be a good manager, and that it would be good to challenge myself to learn to do that. Another thing is that I’m female, and I felt like a walking stereotype by turning down what could be an opportunity to move up.

  15. Suzanne*

    Thank you for addressing this! I’ve pretty much been stuck in lower level jobs because I don’t want to manage and where I’ve worked, that is almost always the only step up. I managed once. I hated it. And once I’d done it, it always seemed to come up in interviews and it was tricky to get across that yes, I had been a manager and would rather have angry ants dumped on my head that do so again.

  16. danr*

    My company invented a ‘subject specialist’ position for me. I moved around, doing different stuff, but always related to our main products. I had good raises (for that company) and job title changes. It was always interesting. I had one stint at managing a very small department and I was not good at it. I had no problem going back to the specialist roles. Of course, this was way before AAM, so I sort of winged it when I managed.

  17. Stranger than fiction*

    Yeah, for a minute I was disappointed I wasn’t some sort of assistant manager by now, but now that I know how bad upper management makes the manager here feel sometimes, I’m glad I’m not. It is however time for me to speak to my boss about taking on some new projects because I am bored to tears (thus my frequent time on AAM) I grew a bunch my first couple years and got couple nice raises but have since stagnated. Plus you have to be really careful what you ask for around here or you’ll get crap you do not want to do and/or piles it on at the busiest time of month

  18. Jill 2*

    This is me to a T. I never want to manage people. It is simply not in my wheelhouse, nor will it ever be. I would love to be a subject matter expert; I have dreams of becoming a consultant some day. But even with 10 years of experience, I feel like I don’t have enough experience to strike out on my own. And ironically, I think until I have a management/leadership position, I won’t have enough clout or contacts to do it on my own.

    But in the meanwhile, I will stick with being an individual contributor. That’s stressful enough where I am right now; I can’t even imagine managing on top of it.

  19. Mimmy*

    LOVE the Subject Matter Expert concept! I’ve always wanted to be an SME, but that seems to be more common in technical fields, like IT or engineering. Not too sure there’s much of a market for the type of topics in I’d want to develop expertise :/

    1. anonanonanon*

      You never know! At my publishing company we use SMEs for certain areas of expertise depending on the content of the book. We have different SMEs for fiction than we do for non-fiction or educational books. Most of ours are consultants or freelancers, but there’s enough full-time workers for the more popular areas of expertise.

  20. College Career Counselor*

    I had a colleague several years ago who had been a director earlier in her career and was good at it, but she had absolutely no desire to go back to management. Didn’t want the headaches or the responsibility for reviewing others, and her focus was on providing excellent service to her student client population. But, she was also someone who liked to be challenged or she would easily become less engaged with her work

    Her boss was able to keep her engaged by a combination of Alison’s subject matter expert (by charging her with finding interesting and useful avenues for staff professional development) and by engaging her creativity (what other kinds of programs/activities could we potentially implement). Ultimately, that was kind of SME/Creativity track. Unfortunately, it didn’t lead to additional advancement in terms of title or pay (because that’s not how higher ed works), but in this case at least, those were not motivating factors for the employee. Being perceived as a SME and engaging her creativity were.

    1. Meredith*

      I have a colleague now that went from a management position in another academic department to a student services position in my department and she loves it here. She had to take a pay cut, but she’s got a counseling background and she’s incredibly good at what she does for us. She liked her old job well enough, but sometimes it’s just not satisfying.

  21. Dirk Gently*

    Oh man, I would love it if we had a technical / SME track option here. I’ve even asked if there was a chance of specializing, and they prefer that everyone be able to do multiple parts of the department’s work. I can see their POV too, and there’s sometimes a limited opportunity to focus on one area more than others, but I feel like they’d be better off giving everyone a couple of years doing a bit of everything and then letting people gradually spend more of their time on the things they’re best at. e.g. I’d like to spend more of my time on the writing side of things; my colleague in the same role on different projects would like to ditch some of her writing and spend more time on the financial aspects.

  22. Miss Pym*

    It would be great if management were also treated more often as a subject expertise track, i. e. there is essential expertise to be developed through training and experience just as with coding and other skills. Untrained people are not (usually) thrown into a job and told to start coding based only on having watched others code. :). But this is very frequently the case for managers. No wonder people decide they don’t like it or are no good at it. This is a loss of talent, and needlessly painful for managers and the managed! There is satisfaction in being the conductor of the orchestra (Mintzberg), or maybe just a jazz quartet, in order to create a sound bigger than yourself. More people should get the chance to do it well.

  23. Beti*

    Finally a benefit to starting a career late! I’m 47 and will be job hunting for my new career by late next year. With all the associated exams, becoming fully qualified just to _do_ the job takes 5-10 years. So with ten years or so after that getting more experience, I can just spend the rest of my working years doing the job rather than feeling the need or getting pressured to move into management.

  24. gsa*

    Anyone still following this thread? My spouse and I were having a discuss about a person that used to be a report, but not since they flattened the change of command. There is no chain at this point; it is very much of a free for all. This person does not want to manage, but was been given a subject matter expert title, that we are not sure is wanted…

    I realize I am rambling. Any thoughts will be appreciated.


    ps: the search function, “employee doesnt want to manage”, found this post in a hot minute!!!

  25. Dan*

    I am a graphic designer. I spent a ton of cash on college to learn design. I spent 18 years learning my craft & honing my design talents & I love what I do.

    I hit the ceiling as far as salary for a few years now. Was told I need to get into management to make more money.

    So I have to drop what have spent 18 years developing & what I love to do, to make more money.

    BTW. Most of the design industry “managers” have no design background, no design talent & they make more money than I. To me, they are just people who make spreadsheets and forward emails. I am a team leader, very organized, work well with others & have veered into the management positions in the past. Unfortunately that just meant more late nights at work and it took away from doing what I love. I can manage but I would be bored out of my skull doing so.

    I know the value of managers, I have been on both sides, just think the value is skewed.

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