How Do You Give Career Progression to Someone Who Doesn’t Want to (or Can’t) Manage People?

There seems to be a common belief amongst most people that to progress in your career, you need to manage people. It’s a fair belief and on far too many occasions, is actually a reality too. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a reality that we should accept. I’m going to talk through a few reasons why you should reject this reality and then share a few ways to buck the trend and offer progression paths to people who don’t want to manage others. 

Why you need to offer progression without management of people

First, let’s talk about a few reasons why you need to offer progression paths to people that don’t want (or can’t) manage others.

Some people aren’t meant to manage others

This should be the only reason that we need to understand why managing people shouldn’t be the only way to get career progression. Unfortunately, all too often, people who should never be responsible for managing others are promoted into positions where they are.

The knock on effects of someone who isn’t able to manage others can be huge. I’ve seen it happen and have made mistakes on this front myself. I’ve promoted people into roles that add a lot more responsibility and involve leading people, but the individual either wasn’t ready or simply wasn’t meant to manage people.

Many people will actually know this themselves and may even communicate that they’re not sure about managing others and are hesitant to do it. Yet in lots of companies, it’s the only way for them to progress, so they go ahead and step into roles that, deep down, they know they probably can’t do.

Most team structures don’t allow for everyone to manage others

Even if someone does want to manage others and is qualified to do so, most team structures don’t allow for everyone to manage people. There simply aren’t enough management roles to give to everyone who wants progression.

This means that you need to be able to provide ways for someone to progress within a team, even if there isn’t a managerial role available at the moment or for the foreseeable future.

Otherwise, you’ll either end up in a position where you either have too many managers, or you have frustrated team members who don’t have a next step in their career. Neither are going to be easy to deal with. 

You’ll lose team members who don’t see progression without management

Quite simply, your team turnover will be much higher if they don’t have progression paths or a next step. Offering a progression path for non-managers will reduce turnover and prevent people leaving who don’t really need to. 

Not to mention, you will also avoid promoting people into management positions who shouldn’t be there, who will then struggle, get frustrated and potentially leave because of that – more turnover that could have been avoided. 

How to offer progression without managing others

Now, let’s focus on what you can do to offer progression to those members of your team who either don’t want to manage others, can’t manage others, or when a management position isn’t quite available yet.

Define how someone can add value without managing people

The first step is to work out how someone adds value to your team and company, without managing people. This means that you need to go really deep on their day-to-day work and how they can add value to your team after doing the basics and becoming more senior. A few examples of what you could think about here may be:

  • Training and developing others in terms of hard and soft skills.
  • Handling difficult situations and leading teams to a solution.
  • Building the reputation of the team and company externally.
  • Being capable of running projects without senior oversight.
  • Bringing new business to the team and company.

All of these are ways that someone can add more value, without managing people, but also require a good level of experience and skills before someone can truly be effective at them. What you’re looking for here is as many things as possible that get stronger and become more valuable with more time and experience. 

This means that you’re giving senior people areas of development that they can focus on, but can’t just be “ticked off” and marked as done on their personal development plans. These things can be worked on over time and the more time that they spend, the better they are likely to become at them.

Create (and visualise) non-management career paths

Many of us understand concepts better if we’re able to see them visually. For me, this is by far one of the most effective ways to show someone what progression within your team or company looks like.

Here is an example:

Career development plan for non-managers.
Career development plan for non-managers.

As you can see, the career path for a designer starts off as you’d expect, progressing from a Junior to a Senior. But instead of going only to a Team Lead, someone has the alternative route of becoming a Lead Designer and after that, a Principal Designer.

Obviously, these roles are going to differ for each team and company. The key point here is to visualise career progression and to show the different routes that someone can take – including the route for a non-manager.

When you create this plan, you also need to create a job description for each role. And this is where the previous point comes in – whatever you’ve used to define the ways that someone can add value without managing – needs to be accessible from this plan. 

Define how someone can niche down and specialise

One key way that someone can progress without managing people is to specialise in a key, valuable skill or area of expertise. It’s surprising that most managers and companies don’t typically embrace this and provide ways for someone to specialise. I won’t go into the wider benefits of allowing someone to specialise, but the benefit from a progression point of view is that it can give someone a great way to learn more, develop and add even more value without managing others.

The ways that someone can specialise will differ for each team and company, but to give you some examples:

  • A web developer may be able to go deep on a certain platform such as Magento or Shopify.
  • A digital marketer may be able to go deep on Instagram ads.
  • A copywriter may be able to go deep on conversion copywriting.

Obviously, the specialism needs to fit with the company and also be something that adds value, but you can hopefully see the possibilities here.

Your brief to the team member who specialises is to become the “go to” expert within your team or company for that specialism. This is very tangible and will push them in the right direction for learning and development – without managing anyone. 

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