I don’t want to move into a leadership role

A reader writes:

I’m in my mid-thirties and have a fairly successful technical career — I have a good reputation for dependable work, common sense, and seeing connections that people miss. Every year, in my performance evaluations, I’m asked how I want to move ahead: my manager sees potential in me, and keeps encouraging me to move up a ladder into leadership positions.

I really don’t want a leadership position. I am happy with what I’m doing now, and the leadership roles all seem to come with an enormous amount of stress. I make enough to take care of myself and my kids, and I give value to the company where I am right now. I don’t want to buy into the more-more-more and sacrifice my happiness, my comfort, and time with my family for a bigger paycheck and more responsibilities.

Is there a way to say this to my manager? Every year, I say something like, “I’m really just looking to broaden and deepen my technical skill set,” but he keeps pressing me to take on different (higher-stress) roles.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Posted in Uncategorized

{ 111 comments… read them below }

  1. Asta*

    This is so timely for me to read – I applied for and didn’t get a managerial role, and since then have actually felt relieved I didn’t as I’m noticing more and more how much HR crap they have to deal with.

    1. De Minimis*

      Years ago, I had a supervisor tell me that managers were in “the people business.” It’s always stuck with me.
      I feel similarly to the OP, though I think I’m going to probably have to eventually go into management if I want to keep working in my field without growing stagnant.

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        The company I used to work for had an explicitly laid out “management track” and an “individual contributer” track for career growth, so you could move up and increase your responsibilities without having to move into a manager role.

        I really think way more places should have that. The fact that people are pressured into management as the only growth opportunity is a big part of why there are so many bad managers to write in about!

        1. Artemesia*

          I know people in technology who are in high level individual contributor roles frankly and openly with no desire to move into management — and are recognized and rewarded well for it.

            1. nony non*

              IBM has this. They do expect you to learn new tech and want people to move from contributor to architect kind of roles, so there is still an expectation of growth, but it’s separate from the people managing track. There is a limit – someone on the tech track can advise the CEO but will never be a candidate for that position. The pay runs parallel to management tracks certainly up to director and I think up to VP, and I believe stock options are possible.

              Quick google for ‘company technical contributor’ popped up similar-sounding paths at Microsoft and Cisco. Most companies push for techs to become managers because finding a tech who is willing to do the HR stuff is rare. Very rare.

              1. Toothless*

                Yep, I’m at Microsoft and the career development tracks for software engineering look like that.

              1. SusanIvanova*

                This. Every place I’ve worked has done that, and I’ve been at several of the big ones. At a certain point I’ve had “mentor this new person” added to what I do, but it is most definitely *not* managing the person, just training at a bit higher level than “here’s how you set up your build environment”.

          1. Pebbles*

            The company I work for has these two tracks. So for my role, the non-management progession looks like Associate, Level 1, Level 2, Senior, Principal. A person in any of the three higher levels can split off to a management track if they want, or they can keep progressing up the technical chain. There is also a Team Lead role that anyone in one of the three higher levels can take on and add to their Level 2/Senior/Principal title, which is part technical and part management.

          2. tamarack and fireweed*

            Yes, this. Some organizations have dual ladders (technical leadership vs. management) and some don’t. I got my first technical chops in a company that didn’t, and ended up with a still-mostly-technical role with “manager” in the job title and nowhere to go up from that that wasn’t management. So I switched to a company where I could continue to grow technically (though even there there would have been a ceiling on that pretty soon).

            The main difference is often whether the technical area is their core product. Technology companies need very senior people in strategic leadership positions, so they build ladders for that. But if the company uses technology to achieve some other goal (ie, “we are really a travel company / retail company / manufacturer[*] / marketing company”), or if the company is somewhat set in their ways and just floating around in a sea of mediocrity, they often don’t have those.

            If you can’t / don’t want to look for a new job just because of the limited future development opportunities outside people management, you may be able to move laterally. Maybe you don’t have complete insight of the options within your own organization, so it would be good to have a frank discussion with your manager about it (“I like what I do and I’m good at it. I’d like to grow, and you’ve offered to help me grow into more of a leadership position, but I’m much more interested in technical positions than classical management which, I fear, is not something I’d be as good at as my technical role. Could we have a conversation what kinds of roles would be available for me to grow into, and what skills they would require developing on my part?”) You may find options you haven’t thought of. Maybe project / program / product management is more to your liking than you thought, and there’s a trajectory into it. Maybe you could ask the CTO’s office what opportunities they see coming up, ie, programs you weren’t aware of.

            But OHOH maybe it would come down to a choice between staying in a job in which you will stop advancing either in seniority, compensation or tech skills (which comes with dangers as “keeping up” with the new grads will progressively something you worry about), or moving out.

            [*] The asterisk is that for engineering the product itself, within the R&D department, there may be senior technical positions, but not in the technology areas that serve production for example.

        2. Warm Weighty Wrists*

          My company just switched to this, and it makes all the sense. It is especially great for me because my next step was going to be managerial and NOOOOOO. Now I can focus on getting promotions for more task-based responsibility and figuring out better processes–you know, the stuff I’m actually good at!

        3. Quinalla*

          Yes, we have something similar, I’m assuming your company doesn’t have something like that, maybe suggest it? I’m personally straddling both right now as I like keeping in the thick of the technical and managing people and interfacing with clients, but most people are on one track or the other at my place and it works great as we have some very high level technical folks who would go elsewhere if they didn’t have a way to advance but stay individual contributors. There is a ceiling you get to there too as other have mentioned, but folks are ok with you staying there if you don’t want to get into people management and you are advising the C-suite at that point, so not like you’d want to be CEO if you don’t want to manage people :)

      2. Don’t do it, brah*

        And what’s wrong with being “stagnant”? I never understood this in corporate America. Why do employers expect us to move into different roles to avoid being “stagnant”? So what if you have the same job and never get promoted. There’s more to life than work. It irritates me that every yearly review I score well across all my kpi’s but then my manager sighs as I tell him that – again – I am NOT going to apply to the leadership track. I just want to do my job and head out at 5 to play call of duty or drink with my non work friends. Having free time is my idea of career success – not being a “leader”.

        1. tamarack and fireweed*

          On the one hand I agree with you, and have in fact had a conversation about it with my spouse, when they expressed doubts about a co-worker:

          – We’ll have a problem with X. They have been doing [role] for a long time and show no interest in moving to something more challenging.
          – Umm, but didn’t you say you like X and are happy with their work?
          – Yes, they’re great!
          – So what’s the problem? You’ll need [role] for the foreseeable future, don’t you?
          – [something about how it is generally badly seen in the American technology world when someone doesn’t want to move up]

          On the other hand, I think that at least some small moves, not necessarily up but… around are helpful to keep one’s skills and motivations fresh. I do see some people close to retirement who are fighting an increasingly losing fight in having to catch up with newly qualified colleagues who come with a new skillset or mindset that no one is actually training the older colleague in. And get resentful over it, and spend a significant amount of effort proving to their co-workers that they still have it. It’s sad.

          So I wouldn’t be hung up about it, as long as you make sure everyone’s skills are refreshed regularly and they get something new to chew on once in a while.

          1. tamarack and fireweed*

            (I should say that my spouse *is* in such a senior technical role. Their job title is something like Principal Tea Safety Architect. They were hired as Senior Tea Safety Architect, and promoted. They could have been tired much lower and grown into these roles over time.)

        2. MCMonkeyBean*

          There’s nothing inherently wrong with it and lots of people live their life that way, but as Alison mentioned it may become an issue if they hit the ceiling of how much they can pay you in your current role.

          I feel you though. I am very much a work to live person who chose a boring but practical career to support my life outside of work. I pretty young still so I currently want to grow a little bit more but probably not much more. The people higher than me work longer hours and I really don’t want that! My dad cannot wrap his mind around the fact I don’t have ambitions to be CEO someday and it is definitely a tiring topic of conversation!

        3. LizM*

          It’s an issue if they’re not keeping up with changes in their field.

          I don’t think everyone has to go into a leadership track, but I do like the technical specialists who work for me to have a growth mindset. It doesn’t have to be promotions, but it should include keeping up with new developments in the field, networking with other technical specialists, learning new software, and looking at process improvements that my office can implement. That’s all possible to do without changing jobs.

          To me, “stagnant” is the person who has been doing a job one way for the last 20 years and has zero interest in learning any other way to do it. And honestly, in many of the technical fields I supervise, that would be a problem.

  2. Amber Rose*

    I mean, this goes back to the idea that many people end up in management positions because they’re good at their job and not because they’d be good managers. I don’t think managing is for everyone.

    Lord knows my manager offers to trade places with me often enough.

    1. Doug Judy*

      Yes this. So many companies think “great at X = great at managing people who do X”. Definitely not always the case. My husband is a very dependable, hard worker who’s very good at what he does. He’s very introverted and has zero desire to manage people. He realizes that this limits his earning potential but he’d be miserable as a supervisor.

      1. Leave Law*

        Whereas I’m an extrovert and really want to be on the senior management track, but I’m pigeonholded into being an individual contributor because I’m an attorney in the legal department. My company has the view that attorneys can’t be good managers because of all the stereotypical reasons people hate attorneys.

        1. tamarack and fireweed*

          At least you have positions that are suitable for you to apply to and can work on overcoming the prejudice by arguing why specifically you would be a good manager. This isn’t the case for the OP or other technical people who would like more responsibility, but not in managing people.

  3. High Score!!!*

    I’ve been in a very technical position for 30 years. No company I’ve ever worked for has offered a real career path for technical jobs. You just move up into management… Or not. It sucks. Had I moved up, I’d make a lot more money but be unhappy because management is a different skill set. Those I’ve seen move up are rarely good at what they do and just make their underlings miserable. Why don’t companies offer real career paths for technical people? It would work out better for everyone.

    1. banzo_bean*

      Do you think this also makes it harder for less experienced staff to break into apprentice/junior level roles in technical fields, were senior/experienced roles are really management roles and thus discourage some more experienced technical staff from moving into them?

      1. High Score!!!*

        Not quite sure what you’re asking. Actually senior level technical roles are harder to get bc managers often think they can get a newbie to do the same job for less pay. Newbies are great for some roles but lack experience and it rarely works out well when a project is complex or there is no experienced lead to catch issues early.

    2. TootsNYC*

      pay them more.

      And don’t insist that they must earn less than their managers.

      They’re different skills sets, but the technical people are really more valuable to the business and often harder to replace.

      1. High Score!!!*

        Yes. This. Technical people are undervalued. In my area companies need more technical people and are fighting over the ones that are here but they haven’t yet realized that paying us more would attract more talent.

      2. Ali G*

        Yup – my direct report only makes about $6k less than me. She’s been here 20 years but I am technically an Exec while she is a Manager. I don’t care if she eventually surpasses me because I could NEVER do her job. She has a skill set we need in a critical role and I am happy to pay her what she is worth!

      3. SarahKay*

        Yes, YES, YES!!!
        I’ve argued for years that ‘Manager’ should be accepted as an entirely different career path to ‘Tech’, ‘Engineer’ etc, and that managers shouldn’t necessarily earn more than the people they manage. Also, that there should be more recognition that what makes a good manager is very often wildly different to what makes a good technical person.
        Much to my frustration the world is not set up that way.

        1. JessaB*

          Agreed, there’s also the issue though if the company doesn’t have a clear path for people it’s possible that they have a structure where if they don’t move someone up or out they back up people behind them because they haven’t arranged the company in a way that allows people who wish to NOT be managers (and yes totally completely different skill set to anything else,) to stay where they are whilst other people move around them.

          If the OP is in a position where they expect that person to get promoted and then they don’t, then the person in line behind them is stuck, because OP is sitting in the seat that they need to promote that other person to. It’s a terrible way to arrange a company

    3. Samwise*

      And not just in technical fields. I’m in higher ed, academic adjacent. If I want to get promoted or earn substantially more money, I would have to go for a managerial position. I am not interested in that kind of job at all. Which is too bad, because I have a lot of other skills (including leadership) and experience that would be very valuable to the institution.

    4. BetsyTacy*

      I do know a few companies who have ‘individual contributor’ tracks for technical pros. These are specifically targeted at exactly those people who want to stay in their roles as individual contributors rather than moving into management.

      The example I can think of is somebody who has been a Spout Engineer then a Senior Spout Engineer and now is basically the Spout troubleshooting guy who helps other teams with the most complicated and (to him) interesting problems. He is thrilled with his role and was offered to take either a management track or an individual contributor track. He has mentioned that people do have the option to move back and forth, but a surprising number of people test out the ‘other side’ and then move back.

    5. Interplanet Janet*

      Some of the bigger tech companies offer this for sure. A “Tech Lead” position that was specifically for the type of person that would be able to tackle architecture changes, innovate new technologies, maybe act as a mentor or pair program features with less experienced hires. A team might consist of 4 or 5 developers and one tech lead, but still have a manager. The tech lead salary range was roughly the same as someone at the first level of management. It was broadly advertised as one of two advancement paths available (the other being moving up the management chain) for tech people.

    6. Bethany*

      I work in engineering and we have two types of seniors – team leaders and technical directors. If you are really good at your job but don’t want to manage people you become a technical director and work with technical aspects only.

  4. Sleepytime Tea*

    This is me. I really like the work I do, and I would miss it if I were instead managing people. And honestly, the frustration that comes from trying to motivate people who don’t want to be motivated, inspire people, deal with drama between people, basically all the “human” aspects that come along with being a manager, is something I don’t want in my daily life. I have had leadership type aspects to my role, like being semi-responsible for new people and coaching them, and while it would have been different if I had real authority, the struggles were still something I would encounter a lot.

    Luckily, in my line of work (teapot analyst), there are a lot of options to move up and take on more advanced work, higher level roles, etc. without going into management. Not every career path allows that. But I have had conversations with managers that focused on the skills I want to build, or the types of projects I want to take on, and so forth, and said specifically I’m not interested in management. Nearly all were totally receptive to that, and honestly some of them only validated my choice by opening up to me about some of the struggles they have and I just think “yep, I don’t want that.”

  5. James*

    In the company I work for there is are distinct career paths for managers vs. technical specialists (like Health and Safety or Waste Disposal). If your company offers something like that you can shift the conversation to something along those lines. It would help if you spoke with a few more senior people (informally) about mentorships/networking opportunities as well.

    No joke about the higher stress levels. I’m in my 30s and moving into management, and it’s been a lot of stress. I enjoy it, but if you’re not the kind of person who does I can understand why you’d want to avoid it! I jokingly ask a friend of my (coworker, on the technology path) if she wants my job, and she not-so-jokingly asks if I want to see her letter of resignation!

  6. Don*

    Take a look around your company culture as well. Alison says it in a nice way but as an aging technical person I feel no such need: our industry is rife with ageism and “shouldn’t you be a manager by now?” is very often the result of a culture that values technical people who are young. Sometimes that’s just a “generic” ageism but it also grows out of a business that wants lower-cost employees who will do 60 hour + a week death marches and be motivated by beanbags and free soda rather than good 401k matches and good work-life balance.

    1. Joy*

      I watched my dad go through this — a high level of expertise built over decades in an in-demand technical field but no interest in management. At the end of the day the only way to build his career up (and ensure that if he lost his employee role he wouldn’t be aged out of new hiring) was to become and independent contractor. Somehow that seems to add caché that an in-house employee with the same skills, doing the same work, doesn’t have, and it also gives you some more control over your rate.

    2. J.E.*

      I’m always suspicious of any place that has all those bells and whistles like a ping pong table, free Starbucks, tv’s etc. It means they expect you to practically live there and not have a life outside of work. I’d rather work somewhere without any of that stuff, but that understands the meaning of work-life balance.

      1. Filosofickle*

        I moved to San Francisco during the first big tech wave and quickly learned that onsite gourmet food, dry cleaning, yoga, and hang-out zones weren’t perks for workers. If you never needed to leave for food or errands, you worked more hours. Bleh.

      2. Brett*

        I interviewed with google right out of grad school. During my conversation with them, it came up that my wife is a music teacher. “Oh, she could teach lessons on campus!”

        It took a tick to process how incredibly terrifying that phrase was from the perspective of work-life balance.

    3. mark132*

      Ageism is what I’m facing now. I look at jobs at different companies, and they term 4-6 years experience as senior. Well I’ve got 4-5x that.

  7. MistOrMister*

    When I was younger I thought I wanted to move into a supervisory/managerial role. As I have gotten older and seen the hassles that come from management, I have mostly changed my mind. Too many meetings, too many petty employee spats, just too much nonsense overall!! I especially fear being put in a team leader type position where you have supervisory resppnsibilities and zero authority. I would rather be a competent cog in the machine than the grand poohbah

    1. James*

      The way I describe my role is that I’m at the apex of two pyramids. Above me are all the managers, H&S staff, HR staff, etc., all of whom require me to play by their (sometimes inconsistent and usually contradictory) rules. Below me are all the staff I’ve got, subcontractors, etc., all of whom expect to have their problems handled immediately, and many of whom are…how to put it nicely….as mature as your average third-grader. (No joke, I’ve corrected my son and a sub for the same thing on the same day before!) It’s my job to deal with the bottom so that the top doesn’t have to, and my job to deal with the top so the bottom doesn’t have to.

    2. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      I’m currently a team lead with supervisory responsibilities and no HR responsibility and I actually love it, because I can provide education and direction and kudos and someone else has to be the bad guy when we need one :P (That said, my career track is more toward managing projects than managing people, precisely because I don’t want the HR responsibilities.)

    3. Don’t do it, brah*

      When you’re a boss you can’t hide in the shadows. You can’t “run the clock out”. Senior managers expect too much out of you. You’re visible and accountable. I’ll stay here in the shadows, working at a leisurely pace and browsing AMA.

  8. KHB*

    For what it’s worth, I was in this position nine or ten years ago. My team lead was getting promoted into a different position, and my manager felt like I was the only one qualified to take his place. I was terrified. I didn’t want the role, but I got it anyway.

    Nine or ten years later, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. It took a long time, but I’ve grown into the role. I’m really enjoying being the one people on my team look to for direction – and in my case, at least, I’ve had a lot more leeway to develop my technical skills in this role than I would have as an individual contributor. Sure, there are some headaches, but the pros far outweigh the cons.

    I know not every case is the same as mine, but maybe one thing to consider is not just whether you want a leadership role now, but whether nine-or-ten-years-from-now you will wish you’d taken a leadership role now.

    1. Just J.*

      I second this. Make sure you are looking very far ahead into your career and assessing what you want out of it.

  9. Dust Bunny*

    My dad was an engineer for a major petroleum company. He passed up leadership roles several times because he observed that those guys were always divorced and estranged from their children.

    My department head here will retire in a few years and we’re all sort of on pins and needles. I’m not qualified, but I wouldn’t want it, either. His second in command is qualified on paper and could do the job well but would hate it. Neither she nor I are “people” people. So it will be someone else . . .

    1. Ama*

      My dad is an accountant and several years ago was recruited by a major firm to be on the partner track. At the time he was working a job that allowed him to work 7:30-4:30 everyday, which meant he got home in time to cook dinner, coach his three kids’ sports teams and actually spend time with us every evening. Having to work 50-60 hours a week was not worth it to him, even with the extra money. At the same time, he did actually like the firm and the work they did, so he told them “I don’t want to be partner track, but if you ever have a non-partner track managerial role with these specific responsibilities, let me know.”

      A few years later, the firm came back and said “hey we created that non-partner track manager role, would you like it?” He’s been there for 25 years now — they even created additional levels on the non-partner track so they could promote him and hired others into that role because it turned out a lot of very qualified accountants are more than happy to take a little less in salary for a better work-life balance.

      I feel like he has been my model for my career, as I have tried to make choices that increase my responsibility but also fit my work-life balance. I’m probably as high as I’m going to go now (department head), even though my CEO thinks I could move into her role someday, because I’ve seen the hours she works and the level of crap she has to deal with.

  10. Elle*

    “Having someone stick around for years and just stagnate — not learn new things or seek out improvements to how they do their job — isn’t an appealing prospect.”

    No snark meant, but … why? This is, of course, assuming the person continues to do their work well and doesn’t let quality slip after a period of time.

    1. Serin*

      In order not to let the quality slip, you *have* to keep learning new things and seeking out improvements. Otherwise the technology advances and you don’t.

      I work with someone like this. It’s not even a technical position, just tech-adjacent, but being the colleague of someone who decided four years ago that he wasn’t going to keep up with any more Excel updates is annoying.

      1. Elle*

        I guess my statement was probably more reflective on the types of jobs I’ve held, but yeah, that makes sense. The last office job I had was in corporate publishing and we were using Windows XP (!) in 2013 because the very specific platform we used could only run on XP. I have some friends there and as far as I know, that’s what they still use. But yeah, I imagine that’s probably not normal.

        1. banzo_bean*

          I think it’s mostly that the OP is in a techinical field. My experience in my field is that there is an expectation that you will keep on top of new technologies (even in your spare time) is a part of the job. So in a sense, not learning new things or seeking out improvments would signal a decline in quality for an employee.

          1. tamarack and fireweed*

            Even though I argued kinda the opposite above… If done right, this kind of “stagnation” can have great results. I remember several times I saw a team start out new under a new manager, inexperienced / newly hired / cobbled together people (one was database administration, one was QA and one was a tech support team). At they beginning, they just figured stuff out, did some things wrong, got feedback (ie, complaints) from other units, reworked things, got better at it. As time went by everyone just got better at things, they learned new tools, they implemented new processes, they started providing feedback to other units. And just sent their members learning and improving. And after a few years you get a finely honed, formidably effective machine in which everyone STILL is either an X (DBA, tech support analyst, qa analyst) or a Senior X, but working at a much higher level. And have found ways to integrate constant learning (and teaching newbies) into their process. Then you have a team you can throw a REALLY hard challenge at.

    2. Dasein9*

      This is a really good question, Elle. And yeah, assuming someone’s keeping up with the needs of the job, why do we tend to assume that the category of “good employee” has so little overlap with “stays in the same job for a long time?” And why do we tend to assume that “improvement over time” entails “manages others?”

      I’m in a position where I get to make things. I want to keep learning how to do that better and better, whereas the idea of learning how to manage the people who get to make things leaves me feeling exceedingly weary.

  11. BigRedGum*

    i completely understand. i went from managing a very successful retail store to reviewing grants at a university, and i told my boss flat out that i love my job, i would love to learn more, but I don’t want to manage people ever again. When she asked why, i told her that i had realized i want to be more of a friend than a boss to people i work with. she said she was glad i recognized that because a lot of people didn’t.

    hopefully there are a lot of opportunities at your place of work for you that don’t involve managing other people.

    1. Filosofickle*

      Oh, interesting…wanting to be more of a friend sounds like me! I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

      I always avoided management. Two years ago I was asked to try out being a Director with people management responsibilities. Did it for a year, but didn’t enjoy it at all. AT ALL. I like coaching and mentoring and even training, but am super uncomfortable holding people accountable or providing feedback. Delegating and providing clear direction/expectations elude me. I enjoy having control, but hate to exert it over others.

  12. Sled dog mama*

    Something else to think about, if not address proactively is things like software. (In my field it’s common to have 3-5 positions over a career but they all would be doing the same things just a question of if you are supervised or supervising (in the sense of checking behind).
    I see this frequently in my field, we choose the best option from 3-4 contenders. 10 years later it has fallen far behind its competitors and we are looking at a new system and while x is regarded as best in the industry now x had problems ten years ago and people don’t want to learn about the changes or accept that exactly what you need the software to do may change over time so software x meets the need better than software y that youve ised for 10 years.

    1. Sled dog mama*

      All of that was an unclear way of saying OP should pit some serious thought into how they are going to stay current on new developments which might be skills younger workers have because they were exposed in schooling or because (as in my field) everyone starts out in big mega company which alway has latest and greatest. If you aren’t staying up on those developments the only way for the company to bring in the skills is to hire someone who is early career.

  13. Daisy*

    Just for people out there that are having the same issue: bigger companies (or smaller with a higher developed technical team) have real career path for technical position without managerial roles. As an example, in our we have

    Junior X–> X (plain title with no adhjective) –> Senior X –> Staff X –> specific consultative figures (only some technical roles)

    What’s a “Staff Something”? It’s a go-to person that own a bigger portfolio than the Senior, and has cross-functional knowledge in adjacent areas of the X role, have better “big picture” and are able to smooth out cross-team/cross-department projects.

    In addition, you can have a micro-promotion system, when you are like “junior Senior X”, even if in this case, you only have a small pay bump and not usually a title change.

  14. Angelinha*

    Would you consider a ‘leadership’ role that didn’t have to manage people? If so, you could talk to your boss about designing a position/promotion that would give you more responsibility (or recognize the additional responsibility you’ve taken on in your current role) without making you an official manager. Like a Senior Teapot Specialist or whatever. This could demonstrate that you are growing at the company, you just prefer the individual contributor work to the traditional management roles.

    1. I hate the offseason.*

      I’m known in my org as someone who manages projects/programs. I’ve tried managing people, but I really did not like that at all. Give me a project to run, I’m much happier.

    2. Mockingjay*

      Yes, a Task Lead or Project Lead position in which you manage work assignments, not people can be a growth avenue.

  15. NotAnotherManager!*

    I feel like there is a lot of pressure to advance good people so that they are not bored and don’t leave the organization. If I had someone say to me that they wanted to continue to be a subject-matter expert and individual contribute, I’d be thrilled to maintain and expand that expertise. I might ask more senior people to do some training in their area of expertise or mentor someone, but I think it’s great when people recognize up front that they don’t want to manage people. It is difficult and it’s not for everyone, and, in addition to possibly putting the advancing employee in a bad position, you put the team under them in a bad position.

  16. I'm A Little Teapot*

    Another one here who’s technical/individual producer and happy to stay there. So far, it’s not really been a problem as I’ve selected out of various companies where it would be. It has helped that I’m extremely clear and vocal about it – I will not move into a management position in my current field. I know what they do, I’d be terrible at it, and I’d be miserable. The money isn’t worth it.

  17. RedinSC*

    One of the things we’re grappling with here at my work (non profit) is how do we reward people for staying in the roles, learning and getting better/more skills. I’ve been doing a lot of research and I think that all companies need to have those worker bees, there aren’t enough employees for everyone to move into management, so if someone wanted that, they’d have to leave. And then I’d lose a very valuable team member.
    So, how can companies build in the supervisory track for people to move forward in, but also the individual contributor track and still move up, and continue to grow. Tech companies seem to be paving the way here, so that’s where I’m taking my lead. But it’s an interesting problem, and I hope to have a path for folks here within the next 6 months.

    1. anonMgr*

      This is something I grapple with. I work for a technical megacorp as a manager. Like others have mentioned, the job progresses from associate X, X, senior X, staff X and senior staff X. It’s pretty quick/easy to go from associate to senior but then what. People want to feel they’re making progress. If you stay long enough to make it to staff, you can stay at that level for years if not forever. And even if you make it to senior staff, there’s nothing really after that on the tech (vs management) track so how do you keep someone engaged for the next 15 years.

  18. SarahKay*

    Wow, OP, you could almost be me. I was in a very similar position about five years back and ended up being really quite blunt that I had zero interest in becoming a manager. I found the write-up of my annual appraisal that year pretty funny, as my manager added comments to the effect that “Sadly SarahKay has expressed a definite wish not to move upwards into management” in just about every comment box there was on the form.
    I then got a new manager a couple of years ago and had the discussion again. I think by then I was much clearer in my mind about the whole situation, so we had a fuller conversation on the subject. This meant it was a very similar discussion along the lines that Alison suggested.
    I pointed out that I knew and accepted that I was limiting my career and pay, but that I was more than happy with the trade-offs of enjoying my current job, liking my colleagues and my workplace, and not having the significant stress (for me) of managing people. I did also say that I’d be interested in one-off assignments outside my normal role (these are pretty common in my company) as I was very happy to keep learning new things, but that managing people was a deal-breaker for me.
    I’ve since had a couple of the one-off assignments come my way as a result of that discussion and enjoyed them greatly – and I’m still very happy in my current job!

    1. AuroraLight37*

      That’s a good way to put it- making it clear you know the trade-offs and that you’re fine with them, that you’re not stagnating in the role, but that people management is not your bag.

  19. Policy wonk*

    This was me about 12 years ago. Had a good job, good work-life balance, was able to chaperone a field trip or go to kids’ school events. Had the “not interested in a leadership role” conversation with my boss. He seemed fine with it, but from then on when there were interesting training or other opportunities I may as well have been invisible. He saw no further need to invest in me. Disappointing, but I had a good gig so didn’t really mind. But be careful to express interest in growing and contributing in other ways so as not to close that door.

    FWIW he retired a couple of years later and I ended up with the boss from hell, so took an open leadership position to escape. As my kids are older, it turned out to be a good thing. You never know what’s around the corner.

  20. Safely Retired*

    Stagnating is less of an issue when in a technical role, as technology rarely stands still. I spent 28 years at my last company. I was first hired because I knew a relatively obscure programming language that the company depended on. That language was phased out in a few years, but I transitioned into newer tech again, and again, and again, and again. I was never in management, but I was promoted to the highest non-management level less than half way through those 28 years. I continued to get raises for most of those years but my salary eventually hit the ceiling. My boss at the time was relieved when I had no problem with that, I was well paid and knew it.

  21. Amethystmoon*

    This is me also. I don’t mind being in a support role and would not mind a higher-paying job, but the problem is that for people that are happy in support roles, there’s not really another position to move into besides senior support staff or middle management. I personally would never want to have to fire anyone. I do wish companies would re-think their career progression and offer different things for people in support roles that aren’t necessarily management positions, but are ways to contribute at the individual level and still pay more. Some people really are happy being in the background.

  22. Bunny Girl*

    Thanks for the great advice, because this is so me. I’m still finishing school as a non-traditional student (a little older than average) and I work full time and while I’m looking forward to my new career, I know that I never, ever want to be management. Even though I’m passionate about the line of work I want to go into, I love my work-life balance and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I don’t want to be bothered after work or on weekends unless it’s a huge urgent emergency, and I don’t see that happening with managers. On top of that, I have less battery (social wise) than an Iphone and I can’t imagine having more interaction and conversations than I already do in a day.

    I know a lot of people don’t understand the thought of just wanting to stay where you are, but I know I’d prefer it. I just want to make enough money to keep a roof over my head and my dogs happy and healthy and then I want to go home.

  23. TootsNYC*

    I worked at a publication with editors and reporters. The reporters were really important; their skills were actually much more valuable to the business than the editors’.

    But management didn’t want to pay reporters more than they paid editors.
    They thought that pay comparisons should match the org chart.

    The editors were always arguing to be able to give good raises and compensation levels to their star reporters, pointing out that their value was important, and that it would be a real blow if they lost the person who was good at identifying stories, who had contacts in the field who would feed him information, and who had the skills to dig up the interviews and statistics that made the editorial valuable to the readers.

    Subject-matter experts can easily be more important to the business than managers.

  24. AnonEMoose*

    You and I also have some things in common, OP. I have experience managing people in a volunteer role – I’ve had to be a part of developing a performance improvement plan, deal with harassment issues, deal with interpersonal conflict, and all of that stuff. And while I love the volunteer thing enough to deal with it, and I’m glad I’ve had the experience…it’s not something I want to do as part of my paid employment.

    I’m happier and less stressed as a valued individual contributor. I’m also enough of an introvert that I’m happier spending most of my day in my cubicle, working on my computer, and dealing with information more than people. I would not be happy dealing with all of the meetings, trying to explain to higher-ups who aren’t process or detail-oriented, and so on.

    Right now I have a niche…it works for me, I have a great relationship with my boss, and while more money would be great…I also have a good amount of PTO and my boss is happy to give me flexibility. I have the time and mental/emotional energy to do stuff I want to do outside the workplace.

    I wish more companies recognized that not everyone wants to be in management. I probably could do the work…but it would be at a significant cost to my personal life and mental and emotional health. Not worth it to me. And I wish it was more accepted to openly say that, and not perceived as a lack of ambition or being a slacker or something like that.

  25. Brian*

    No clue what field OP is in but I work in software engineering and 10 years ago there was an expectation that older engineers had to move to managerial roles because perception was younger engineers were sharper and better at writing code. I remember one VP in his 50s saying that “nobody over 35 should be writing code” and he had some anecdotal story about how Bill Gates hadn’t written code since 1985 or something (no idea if that’s true).

    Thankfully I think these attitudes have changed in the places I’ve worked (thankfully, I think a lot of that rhetoric was borderline age discrimination). But I definitely could see some places having an institutional “up or out” attitude, especially for technical roles. I know myself well enough that I’m not suited for a managerial role. I don’t mind being the senior guy on the team that younger colleagues can come to if needed but middle management has no interest for me.

  26. Shannon*

    Everyone is different, but I’m with OP. Moving into management at my last job was a huge mistake, although much of that was because the environment was toxic and there was zero support for management from higher ups (and much yelling/nonconstructive criticism/unrealistic expectations). Now I’m in a high-powered contributor role, which suits me much better, although I might consider giving management another shot someday since my current environment is supportive and extremely nontoxic. :) Those are a lot of words to say that only you know the dynamics of your employer and what’s best for you as an individual. Good luck.

  27. Manager In Name Only*

    I’m in the same boat. I’m an introvert (not shy!), and love my job as a teapot accounting manager. Lots more than just accounting though. I manage the in-house side of all our contract work. No direct reports, lots of process revisions, on boarding, coaching, training, reconciling accounts, cleaning up reports, low level IT support. I’m also an RN, so I’m the unofficial company nurse. It’s a small company (35 employees), so when the owners are away I get to handle higher level administrative issues. And all of the ‘wow this is a big mess, someone needs to pull it apart and put it back together’ work comes to me, which is awesome because I love puzzles to solve! I take on new things often, and am happy to do it because it keeps me in learning mode. Owner asked me if I would be interested in managing people, I told her “that’s the fastest way to make me hate my job”. She laughed, and hasn’t asked again. We have been friends for over 40 years, so I know that I can always go back to her and revisit that.

    Old Job was in healthcare IT. Mega Hospital Corp was all about moving people up or out, and they disapproved of people who did not want to keep climbing the ladder. So I feel your pain.

    OP, you know yourself best. You may want a different career path later, so it would help you to re-evaluate from time to time. I hope that your boss will support you doing what’s best for you, and be open to change if you ever decide you are ready to move into management.

  28. General von Klinkerhoffen*

    As I’ve grown in age and experience, with a similar lack of interest in management, I have however increased my client contact – that is a way to increase responsibility without dealing with other people’s timesheets (!)

    I don’t mind mentorship roles or project/team lead roles, but I get enough of *managing* at home with three young children.

  29. Whatever*

    This is a great letter and would have been me about a year ago. I was great at my job and had been talked to about moving into a management role a few times and just didn’t want to, but I kept growing in my job and taking extra opportunities to spread my wings each chance I got to keep myself invested and interested. Until one day I realized that I didn’t feel like I was doing anything. I was, and doing things better than everyone else, but it’s like asking a marathon runner to run a 5k. They’ll do it faster and it’ll look great, but it doesn’t really take much effort on their part and they won’t get that runners’ high from it. I needed to make things harder to be able to stay engaged in the long run.

    I made the decision to finally make the leap and apply to move up into that management job I said I never wanted and I’ve been loving every minute of it. Yes, it’s more stressful and yes my brain often feels mushy by the end of the day because of all I’ve done. But I have that runners’ high again and I’m enjoying things taking effort.

    So don’t close that door all the way. It’s OK to not want it now, but you may want it in the future and that future might creep up when you least expect it.

  30. 4Sina*

    This is such a great question, thank you for answering it. We have a culture that encourages movement, so I’ve felt alone in my desire to stay at a skilled technical position. This is why I was so grossly turned off from academia – I thought anyone pursuing their PhD when they could have a masters and do the “fun stuff” were insane, and I’m seeing it now in my current role in a non-profit, as more people ask if I’ll be managing the department some day. I would like to be doing the same job I’m doing now when I’m 45, 55, 65!

    I think this is also a time to reflect on priorities – I feel this way because despite how fulfilling I find my job, and how much good I see it does for my community, I will never ever choose my job over my personal life. If that is the case for anyone else, as it sounds like it is for LW, then that’s something to get comfortable with really quickly and what it might mean for your “expected” trajectory in the workplace.

  31. Nanobots*

    It’s a disservice to good managers that so many companies want to push everyone into management. Management is so difficult and requires skills not everyone is going to be able to acquire! By telling everyone that they can only move up by going into leadership, you send the message that anyone can be a manager.

    I know my salary increases will eventually bottom out because I refuse to manage people again. I’m an awful manager. I’d have to improve so much just to be a satisfactory manager. I’d much rather get better at the technical skills of my job and let someone else take on the headache of management.

  32. Stitch*

    I temporarily take management positions during things like maternity leave. I don’t mind it for a short time but would hate it permanently.

    1. Clay on my apron*

      I agreed to move into a management role because my department was struggling to find suitable people, but I made it clear I was probably going to want to move out of the role after 6 months. And I did. It was a difficult and poorly supported role, so nobody was too surprised. And I’d done myself (and them) the favour of making it clear up front that it would be a short term stint.

  33. J.E.*

    I also have no interest in ever being a manager, I’m much happier as a worker bee. I value my work-life balance to the point that I’ll take less money in order to still have a life outside of work. I like knowing I can go on vacation and actually unplug and not be worrying about what is waiting for me when I get back or still checking emails when I should be relaxing. I’m still interested in learning new things to do my job and going to workshops or trainings that are relevant. The headaches of management are not worth it to me and I know myself well enough to know I would not succeed in that kind of role.

    1. londonedit*

      This is exactly me. Earlier in my career I moved up the ladder as I thought you were ‘meant’ to do – I was working in a small company, someone left, and I was promoted into quite a high-level job. Hated it. It took me away from the work I actually enjoyed doing, I didn’t like the stress of meetings and budgets and firefighting problems all the time, and I didn’t like feeling like everything was on my shoulders. I now have a ‘worker bee’ job where I’m responsible for the hands-on project management stuff that I really enjoy, and that I’m quite good at, and that keeps me more than busy enough. I feel like I do better at my current job because I have more experience and I have done those higher-level jobs, but at the same time I’m very glad not to have all the stress and responsibility.

  34. Clay on my apron*

    Agree with Alison’s script here, although I’d modify it slightly: “I don’t want to move into management RIGHT NOW”. Don’t close the door on the option completely. At some point you may decide that you actually want to give it a try.

    I was very happy in various (related) individual contributor/specialist roles until I was in my 40s, when I finally started to feel bored, and realised that I could be more effective in the team lead role than my less experienced colleagues. I also wanted the opportunity to get a different perspective.

    I got the perspective and the experience, but realised that I prefer the specialist role so moved into a related but more challenging individual contributor role.

    Ask about a specialist or technical track, as others have mentioned. And if your company doesn’t offer this, ask them to consider it. There are companies that do. This is what made it feasible for me.

    In my field, individual contributors with a lot of experience are highly sought after and well paid, and work more as senior level consultants. We mentor and coach junior colleagues, and liaise with senior stakeholders, but we’re not responsible for managing a team per se.

    Good luck, and kudos for recognising that it’s okay not to want to be a manager. If only other career paths were more available and more visible!

  35. Mockingjay*

    The one thing management never brings up, though, is that there isn’t always room at the top. Most workplaces are a pyramid. If the only way to progress at a company is to move into management, people will be jockeying for more positions than are available. Companies need to recognize this and offer alternatives to retain skilled people.

  36. nnn*

    A Big Name in my profession worked for my employer for decades until he recently retired, and had no interest in going into management because he’s very good at the technical aspects of the work, but people management is not his strength. But he was very sought-after as an internal mentor, and, as he approached retirement, began publishing books and papers and training protocols that have become the gold standard in our industry.

    So I have the extreme good fortune to be able to say “I have no interest whatsoever in going into management. Basically I want to grow up to be Mr. Big Name,” and the frame of reference for what a long and successful non-management career looks like is right there.

  37. Don’t do it, brah*

    I don’t blame you. I dabbled in a leadership position once and I’ll never do it again. Managers get to tell people to work – not do the work. You spend your day in meetings, babysitting employees, and are forced to plan things like company-wise lip sync battles. Just be upfront with your boss. Tell them Management is not for you. Not all of us crave the illusions of control and power and that’s fine.

  38. Not So Little My*

    This is timely for me as well. I’m an aging Teapot Body Engineer (20+ years in the industry) who is not interested in becoming a Lead Teapot Engineer, Teapot Engineering Manager, or Teapot Architect. I just last month converted from a contract role to a permanent employee at a company that is large enough to have lots of different Teapot Technology departments. When I have my first meeting with my manager about my career goals, I plan to say “I would prefer to remain an individual contributor, but over time would like to broaden my knowledge of the organization and the business by working on different projects, different parts of the teapot stack, and even different departments in the organization.” I have about 15 years to retirement so I imagine I won’t always be working on teapot bodies, but perhaps teapot spouts, wireless portable teapots, teapot process support engineering, etc., and this organization is large enough to try all of those things. It’s also an organization that recognizes and rewards its long-time employees instead of pushing them out due to ageism – there’s lots of people around me (including women, who are underrepresented in this industry) who have been here for 15+ years and have been in several different roles.

  39. From One Techie to Another*

    You might be able to wrangle an Individual Contributor or Subject Matter Expert (SME) roles, or to grow in providing consultation to adjacent business areas.

  40. Bubbles McPherson*

    I’ve worked as a manager for about half of my 20 years working. I fell into management when a boss stormed out mid-shift and I was the only one on the team who expressed any interest in filling his shoes. It was natural to keep on managing after that.

    Within the last few years, I left a manager’s job for a sole-contributor/SME position, and have realized that I HATE BEING A MANAGER. That was a large part of my stress from my last two jobs. The higher-level work was great, the opportunities to set the direction of the agency were awesome, having a staff to delegate things to was solid – but the people problems were the PITS.

    It simply amazes me how grown adults far older and experienced than I can spend hours whining about others’ arrival times, lunch breaks, and clothing. Or how irresponsible some people can be with their own job duties. Or how generally petty people can be about having to pitch in on something outside of their job description. As a manager, I spent more time wrangling those people than I spent doing my job.

    No more! At least not now. I love the work I’m doing, and it’s at a small enough organization that there will never be any risk that I’ll have to manage anyone again while I’m here.

    There are some fields in which I’ve worked and dabbled where I’d love to be a manager – but not this one!

  41. Suzwhat*

    What Allison writes about being aware you may “max out” the pay range for your role is very important. How will you feel if you don’t get any raises / pay adjustments for years? You are doing the same work and at a high level of quality but the company has guidelines for pay and you are above the limits. It is legitimate to be fine with that. Doing what you love and the lower stress levels may well be worth it to you. My company calls it “value you add to the company now and in the future”. If you don’t “move up the ladder” they tend to discount the future value to the company. The money allocated for raises goes to those who move up, not those in the same roles for years.

  42. AuroraLight37*

    My dad was a professor. He had no interest in moving into management, but people kept asking him if he was going to try to become the department head or dean or higher. Dad was a great professor, but he did not have the temperament for management and he knew it, also it would have taken him away from the fieldwork he enjoyed and the students he devotedly shepherded to their masters and PhDs. It would have eliminated all the fun stuff, and the money/prestige wouldn’t have compensated for the stress and annoyance.

  43. Lynn*

    I read few comments of everyone and I understand where they are coming from. For my case is different I have been bookseller for 6 years and never gotten the opportunity to get promoted or do more. My hardwork and dedication to this company for so long. I didn’t feel recognized to this new store manager given the opportunity for my case if I didn’t get promoted my time at the company was done. I want to go to a company to given the opportunity and recognition I put in for 6 years. I am glad finally I will get the chance to be a Sales Lead. I wouldn’t do it till I try.

  44. Not a Blossom*

    At my old job, management felt it was very important that people want to move up, and you got dinged on reviews if you didn’t. The problem is that there were a very limited number of team lead and manager positions and no other way to move up without moving out. They really needed people who were content to stay doing their jobs long term, but then they punished people for that.

    1. SamSoo*

      That seems odd to me! Not everyone *is* management material! I used to be one but I left that role because I just like doing what I do!

  45. mf*

    I have kind of a tangential question: How do you decide if you’re interested in management?

    I’m a few years younger than the OP and am in an individual contributor role. While I like my job, particularly the creative aspects of it, I think I might be bored if I were doing the same thing ten years in the future. I also think that if I decided I wanted to go for a management position, there are a number of senior people I could work with to develop the necessary skills–I think they may be receptive to training me and eventually promoting me.

    However, I worry that if I moved into management, I would stop doing a lot of the creative work that I’m doing now. And that’s the kind of work I enjoy the most, so I would really, really miss. On top of that, my workplace tends to be kind of an intense environment, and it seems to be worse for managers than it does employees. The added stress doesn’t appeal to me–I really value my personal time outside of work, and I think the pressure might make me really unhappy.

    Has anyone else grappled with this question? How did make a decision about what your long-term track would be?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hi! I don’t know if many people will see this today since the post is from yesterday, but I’d be glad to use it as a standalone question, with your permission?

  46. GeekCyclist*

    A key issues in technical fields like programming is that many companies lack a defined track or professional ladder for the “Expert Technical Contributor” who is not at the same time a manager of contributors. I’m not sure if this is what the LW is facing. It may be the case that he wants to be neither a technical leader (a guru/mentor type) nor a people leader. The former is the role missing in many tech firms, the latter is the way you are forced in most if you want to be seen as progressing in the vast majority of firms.

    I was fortunate some years ago to contribute to a reorganization, and was able to move from a front-line manager position into a newly created technical expert track in my company. That meant I was able to hand off all of the people/budget/timesheet kinds of work that are important, but not my cup of tea. I have since been able to focus on mentoring, system architecture and design, and increasing our work product quality. There are still expectations of “leadership” but they don’t include what most people think of when they think of moving up to be a leader (which is all of the people/project/budget management work.)

  47. SamSoo*

    I hear the same thing periodically from my leadership. I think I made it clear recently when I told them flat out (nicely!) that I’m not interested in more stress. I have a great job that I love that pays me well. They can’t pay me enough over that to make it worth my while. Sometimes you just know when you are in the right place. I know.

  48. 653-CXK*

    I’m perfectly content being a contributor.

    The misconception of the most competent and smartest member of a company being management material must stop. They may not have – or want – the leadership skills necessary to effectively manage a team. They may not – or don’t – want be fixers, mediators or advisors…they’re perfectly happy doing their daily jobs without the extra stress and politics, such as writing a PIP or escorting an employee to HR to be terminated.

    People at NewJob have asked me to apply for the position vacated by my former boss, but judging by what she went through and the reason why she left (she had enough of not being respected enough by upper management), I wouldn’t want the job. I’m entirely content being a contributor.

    1. 653-CXK*

      Oops…wrote “I’m entirely content being a contributor.” twice. It should be “I’m entirely content right where I am.”

  49. natan havi*

    i work 8 hours per day and what i like to do is per each hour i go and hide in the bathroom for ten minutes. No one has ever said anything except for the female janitor, but she speaks spanish and nobody understands her. We all laugh at the situation! Besides, all i had to do was rock said janitors “world” and she expects me in there everyday now!

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