Many hope to develop their careers by honing a specialism they’re most passionate about. But with an often impermeable perception that management experience is the sole route to progression, these ambitions are frequently at risk. Regardless of how finely someone has mastered their craft.
Too many organisations see shoehorning people into middle management roles as a means to drive growth and retain talent.
While delegation, motivating others and problem-solving are valuable skills, the result of that single-minded approach to progression is that a glut of high-performing specialists are promoted to roles that they’re unsuitable for – or don’t want. This only disengages teams, stifles growth, and at worst, can create a toxic culture.
Time to make a change
To avoid the increase of unsuitable managers, more organisations need to recognise that middle management isn’t the only path to career success.
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One of the reasons this phenomena has escalated recently is that demand for line managers has been greater than the supply, forcing many businesses to fill those gaps with people who don’t have appropriate training, capabilities or the aptitude – nor the time – to do the job well.
And the results are exactly as we might expect.
Going forward, organisations need to offer two distinct, but equally valued, career roadmaps for employees: one for those who want to continue developing their specialist skill set – the cut and thrust of sales for instance – and the other for those who genuinely want to lead, inspire and help others grow.
Businesses need to reconsider and reframe progression, stepping back from generic career paths in favour of programmes tailored for individual strengths. And a degree of flexibility should be built into career paths, so that people’s potential to develop and progress isn’t hampered by their desire to either manage or be an individual contributor.
Where do leaders come in?
To ensure success of the two career streams, leaders must articulate the merits of both and foster psychologically safe environments where employees feel empowered to say ‘no’ to management roles without judgement.
And from a diversity and inclusion perspective, the onus is on leaders to ensure that employees who want an alternative career trajectory are given equal opportunities to those following more traditional managerial paths.
Employees should be recognised and rewarded for their contribution to a business, not by the size of the team they lead.
Why line managers should still be celebrated
There’s no denying middle management is a tough gig today. Burnout is common and perceptions of red tape and mundanity persist.
By focusing on trying to overcome some of the issues this cohort faces, many organisations fall short in communicating why being a manager is a worthwhile endeavour.
Management should be positioned as an exciting role – because it is. Not only do managers align their teams to a business’ purpose and strategic goals, they also create connection and drive a sense of belonging. They’re critical enablers for productivity and engagement.
Organisations, and leaders specifically, need to better define the role of the manager today and set clear expectations so that people can be intentional about their career choices.
Employees can then make an educated decision whether a managerial role is right for them, which will result in promoting the right managers who can drive efficiency and promote healthier cultures.
So, there are twin challenges for businesses: first to offer equitable career paths for those who decide against management, while at the same time ensuring management is still an attractive proposition to others.
Doing so means celebrating the invaluable motivational role managers play as the custodians of organisational culture, while ensuring management remains an aspirational career choice for the right people.
Alys O’Neill is director of consulting at United Culture