People manager: To be or not to be

Recently having a discussion over a few things and career growth came to fore. As the discussion was with few of my older students (was a college teacher, in some other life… ) and colleagues, naturally it tended towards how can one grow in their career. Surprisingly, the answer from most of them was one day to become a “Manager” and manage a large team.

That’s it? That was the goal? To become a manager and manage a large team? The definition of success?

What happens to the people with less than effective people management skills or those who do not want to be in people management? Where are the technical tracks? Why always growth is towards managing larger and larger teams…

Research has shown that only 10% of employees have the capabilities or the traits to become good managers.

Someone said to me (so truly) during a review period, “it is a skewed setup, though me and my manager are at same level, still he has the power to review my performance and I cannot review his performance (other than just providing feedback to HIS manager)… effectively because he is the team manager and I am the technical guy (or the so-called go to technical person for certain things)“.

These questions have been on my mind for quite sometime. I, for my reasons, have tried to be in IC (Individual Contributor) roles and have been pushed into people management (almost always) by my managers as they saw that only as the way to grow.

I have a few ground rules as to WHY I wanted to be an IC:

  • Get your hands dirty:  As an IC, you see a lot of action on the ground. Not really for you if you want to just “manage”.
  • New learning: One of worst part when I was managing people (about 15 odd people), was that I saw a large dip in my learning progress. More days I spent in as manager, the less I learnt (maybe a spillover from not able to get more of ground action)
  • Love: Well, love has to do a lot with it, my love for technology.

As an IC you should not be managers, but as senior resources for the company, you can and should be mentors. Allowing others to learn from your experience. Be the Guru. Be the teacher.

So what is missing in this decades old approach of corporate ladder?

A dedicated track across the industry, with complete titles and pay packages and true potential – for the people who are not keen on management positions. These are the hidden gems of your company, who are leaders, NOT by role but by example, who have amassed a wealth of knowledge and inspire the people around, not by giving instructions but by their specific and singular contributions.

Major organizations around the world, like Google, Microsoft, Facebook etc. have been doing their bit for the technology gurus in their amidst. But these efforts have been more or less ad-hoc and without any formal tracks. Moreover these tracks or positions are never thought out to be standardized across the industry like the managerial positions.

So what should these gurus be doing in your organization?

They should not be assumed to take over larger and larger teams, rather they should be made responsible of more and more complex projects, give them complex projects with bigger budgets, free them from daily responsibilities and let them take shot at new problems and new product lines.

Let them mentor the key people, who can be groomed into thought leaders. The age-old saying is so true here, talent attracts talent, so having high-caliber gurus in your organizations, will attract other high-caliber candidates, who would love to work, shoulder to shoulder with those gurus and take the company to new heights.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below 🙂

2 thoughts on “People manager: To be or not to be”

  1. Great ideas, Manpreet. This reminds me of our experiences at Microsoft. Although there was a leadership and level track for ICs, I don’t think the company did a great job of recognizing, motivating, and benefitting from those who were recognized his this way. You are absolutely right that “manager” is not the inevitable destination for those who want to advance in accomplishment, leadership, influence, and reward. I hope many will follow your advice!

    • Thanks Tom, it means a lot coming from you. This article is my take from 17+ years of industry at various levels and designations.

      I am happy that currently I am at position in a company where we do not have this mentality and IC culture is fully acknowledged. Maybe because the guys who started this, do not come with deep workings and burden on corporate culture, and have a very hands on attitude.

      I understand it takes time for companies as big as Microsoft and others of size to workaround the age old paradigms and shift to new thinking. But it is same with smaller and newer companies also, as most are being started by people coming from corporate stints and they bring over their corporate cultures along. Or others are being mentored and taught entrepreneurship by mentors with corporate burden on their shoulders. I guess it would take a couple of generations to root out this mindset and move to a more people oriented and organic growth.


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