Managing Your Career Without Managing People

performance management Nicholas Larche

One of the most important decisions an organization can make is who to put in leadership, and research conducted by Gallup reveals that we fail to select the right candidate with the right talent 82% of the time.

What many organizations fail to realize is that structuring a culture whereby individual contributors must move into management to get ahead, particularly financially, is simply a broken process. We owe it to our team members to provide an alternative, and to recognize and reward those individuals who excel at what they do.

A culture dilemma that needs to be solved

Let’s walk through a familiar scenario. Joe Programmer is a Senior Software Engineer with a small e-commerce company, and he is incredibly proficient at writing code. Joe has been with same company for 3 years now. A management position opens up, and Joe’s VP approaches him for the job. The idea of overseeing a mobile development team interests Joe, but the compensation that comes with it makes his decision a no-brainer.

It’s hard to blame Joe for accepting the position, but managing people isn’t easy and it’s certainly not for everyone. Organizations rarely reward excellence in non-managerial positions outside of modest raises or possible retention bonuses, because losing someone as talented as Joe would be one hard hit to the business. This needs to change. Organizations should find ways to develop team members like Joe at what they do best.

For many, stepping into a management position is the pinnacle of their career. It doesn’t have to be. Organizations stand to benefit from developing professionals devoted to their craft.

Which then begs the question, how can organizations develop individual contributors without grooming them for management?  They can chart out both a leadership and a craft-focused career trajectory.

Minimizing attrition and developing your workforce

Just one year ago, the software development team at ShopAtHome.com was painfully familiar with this dilemma. Our career trajectory was purely hierarchical (i.e., Software Engineer – Senior Software Engineer – Manager of Software Engineering).

The detriment of this trajectory is that if a strong developer like Joe declined the offer to step into management, he tops out within our organization, potentially causing him to look for opportunities elsewhere. If Joe accepts the position and six months later realizes that management is not for him, he is more likely to seek opportunities elsewhere than to descend the career ladder within our organization. Either way, we lose Joe.

In 2016, we revised our development career trajectory. Today, our developers can pursue one of two career paths – one leads to management, the other to greater technical expertise. Our newly minted “Lead” position enables our management-inclined, senior developers to oversee a team or product without the “burden” of traditional management duties. This position gives them a glimpse into the life and career of a Manager of Software Engineering. From here, they can commit to the leadership path, or they can pivot to the technical path.

The technical path leads a Senior Software Engineer to the position of Staff Software Engineer and, ultimately, of Principal Software Engineer, both of which allow for greater influence over our product architecture. Developers in these more technical capacities would be expected to contribute to the greater tech community (e.g., blogs, conferences) and to bring back the best practices or innovative methods learned from that community to their team(s) and to ShopAtHome.com.

With this new trajectory, we have since minimized managerial attrition, and have provided our developers the opportunity to grow their careers as well as their compensation.

Free up your best people to do their best work

Many professionals want nothing to do with managing people. We owe it to them to create a career path that is rewarding, both professionally and financially. By removing the burden of managing others, organizations can free up the best people to do their best work every day.


Nick Larche works for ShopAtHome.com in the dual capacity of Human Resources Manager & Corporate Counsel. His passion is for driving culture change and creating environments in which team members can do their best work. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.