You Can Stop Being a Manager Without Sinking Your Career
In this period of pandemic-inspired career reevaluation, you may find yourself wishing you didn’t have to manage people but worrying what leaving a leadership role will mean for you professionally. The author offers four strategies for how to demonstrate to others — and yourself — that it’s not a step backward: 1) Remove your own limiting beliefs. 2) Don’t assume you have to demote yourself. 3) Show how you can lead without formally managing. 4) Ensure that the transition doesn’t impair your team.
When people think about career advancement in today’s organizations, they typically envision getting promoted to supervise increasingly large teams of employees. But what if you want to take your career in a different direction and move from being a boss back to an individual contributor? What will hiring managers and your peers think about you?
As the “Great Resignation” has shown, experienced mid-level employees are not only willing to leave their companies in greater numbers than before, but they are revisiting what it means to have a meaningful work life. A recent study from Forrester Consulting and Indeed suggested that people have come to a “Great Realization”: they now rank feeling energized and having a sense of purpose as more important than compensation when it comes to professional happiness.
Perhaps you became a manager because you believed that career success depended on climbing the hierarchy rather than expanding the application of your strengths to frontline projects or technical issues. But now you find yourself missing the autonomy and responsibility of directly solving problems in your chosen department and less enthusiastic about having to indirectly influence others to do so. Though it might seem like a step back, there can be significant benefits to your personal fulfillment as well as your organization if you choose to become an individual contributor again. Consider the following strategies when communicating your motivation and decision so that you don’t let others’ perceptions get in the way of your happiness and future success.
Remove your own limiting beliefs.
Before you can confidently explain to anyone why you want to move from leading people to working on your own, it’s critical that you view this as a step forward, not backward, in your career. Remember that you’re not a failure for pivoting away from management. In fact, if you don’t enjoy your current role but refuse to make room for someone more suitable to take over, you’ll do more damage to yourself and your team.
One of my coaching clients was promoted to a sales director role at an enterprise software company because he consistently outperformed his peers. At the time, he never thought about refusing the promotion; it was a chance to be recognized as a leader in his organization. But over the next year or so, he realized that the work of a sales manager — designing compensation structures, giving motivational talks to his representatives, and role-playing sales conversations to coach his team — didn’t light him up. He wanted to be back in the trenches, meeting customers every day, and envied his direct reports, whose daily activities were directly correlated with results.
In trying to improve the situation, I initially suggested some job-crafting ideas, including him making time for more engaging customer-facing work. But without a formal role change, that might seem like micromanaging. He would be in the way of empowering and developing his team.
Instead, my client considered how he might revert to being an individual contributor willing to push the edges of creativity more than he had before and solve problems in more expansive and masterful ways. I liken this to an actor who has to perform a monologue in a play or movie. The first step is learning the lines, but after that memorization process, they can play with the part, taking it in a variety of new and compelling directions, while still seeming natural in their delivery.
When you look at your move back to being an individual contributor as a re-entry that allows you to bring new life experiences and skills to improve your offering, you’ll have an easier time embracing and explaining it.
Don’t assume you have to demote yourself.
Many managers who step down will typically choose individual contributor roles similar to ones they had in the past. But in most organizations there are examples of mid-level and senior people who don’t manage others. So it’s worth proposing a formal role or title that reflects the value you bring to the company even if you’re not directly leading a team.
Consider an IT director at a Fortune 500 company who led a sizeable group of managers and their direct reports. When his organization began migrating to the cloud, it needed an expert to guide the individual business units and functions through the transition while also coordinating with an outside consultancy. So, based on his technical experience as well as the influence he had cultivated across the company by previously leading a key support function, he pitched himself to be the director of digital transformation. Not only did he land the role, but he was also able to stay at the same compensation level despite no longer having direct reports.
Another way to become an individual contributor while retaining your executive rank is by working on enterprise-level initiatives with highly visible strategic missions. For instance, I coached two VPs who stepped down from people managers to take on such roles. One ended up leading environmental, social and governance (ESG) programs at a top media group, while the other headed up diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) for their Fortune 100 company. Neither had direct reports. Instead, they were appointed and rewarded for their ability to develop an agenda and execute through influence working with partners in their respective businesses.
As companies consider new structures and flatter hierarchies, these leaders show that it’s possible to work on your own at the same or a higher level than you had as a manager.
Show that you can lead without formally managing.
Some people might argue that the work of individual contributors won’t scale. They think managers have more impact because they have many direct reports executing on their strategic goals. You’ll need to challenge those assumptions. Explain that those who work through influence rather than authority are able to gain momentum through more than just one team. One might even argue that people outside management, who have to work with and through different colleagues, teams, functions, and businesses, do even more people management. The job requires more adeptness and agility to drive results.
Make sure to show that you’re prepared to use your interpersonal and communication skills to lead in this way. Consider a coder I worked with who ended up managing other software analysts and engineers for several years but wanted to go back to coding individually. He knew the company valued his leadership and struggled with a dearth of managers, while having a surplus of individual contributors. So he committed to keep mentoring others as a colleague not a boss. He also promised to work with the new manager on enterprise-level communications.
Ensure your transition doesn’t impair your team.
As you step down from management, it’s also important to lay the foundation for a seamless transition. You should build your team’s bench strength in advance of your move, develop a clear succession plan, and/or keep your network active so you’re aware of outsiders with the right talents to take over for you. You might go to your current manager and say, “I want to make sure my move causes as little disruption to our team’s success as possible. I have a few recommendations for my replacement and am happy to partner with them as they assimilate.”
Remember that how you make a move is just as critical to your reputation as which more energizing non-management role you take. Consider helping onboard the new manager and, if necessary, offer to spend first few months in hybrid mode until they’ve settled in and you’ve defined the success measures for your individual contributor role. My software manager client took a great deal of time transitioning back to being a coder. He knew he could perform as an individual contributor with no problems because he had done the job before. But he was careful to first find the right person to replace him (and effectively be his boss).
In this period of pandemic-inspired career reevaluation, you might find yourself wishing you didn’t have to manage people but worrying what leaving a leadership role will mean for you professionally. These strategies will help you demonstrate to others — and yourself — that it’s not a step backward but a transition that will make you happier and more productive, which benefits everyone.
Nihar Chhaya is an executive coach to senior leaders at global companies, including American Airlines, Coca-Cola, GE, and Dell. A former F500 corporate head of talent development, he is the President of PartnerExec, helping leaders master interpersonal savvy for superior business and strategic outcomes. Access his tip sheet on delivering tension-free feedback to your team.