The other day, I had a conversation with a salesperson. She wanted some coaching in her career and how she might advance and develop. She said, “Dave, it seems the only way to advance in my sales career is to be a manager. But I love selling, I love working accounts and doing deals. I’m not sure I want to be a manager—but I still want to advance in my career.”
She’s focused on a critical issue too few leaders pay attention to. Not everyone wants to be - or should be - a manager. We need to think of career paths and continually developing the capabilities of people who want to grow as individual contributors. If we don’t, we risk losing some of our most experienced and best people–they will leave, looking for better alternatives.
Not Everyone Wants to be a Manager ...
We need to have a richer strategy on talent management, development and retention. We need to think beyond the classic individual contributor, front line manager, second line manager, and so on, up the food chain. If that is the only way for people to advance in their careers, we are implicitly forcing great people to leave our organizations.
How do we build career paths for people who want to be individual contributors? How do we grow and develop them to contribute at higher levels?
There are all sorts of things for us to think about:
- We can give them more responsibility and bigger territories.
- We can move them into more important accounts.
- We can move them into specialist roles, or overlay roles. Not just product specialists, but perhaps, industry, business function, or problem specialists.
- We can create “large opportunity/deal managers.”
- We can leverage their experience and develop richer experience by assigning them to work on special assignments or task forces.
- We can leverage their experience and expertise by having them mentor and develop new hires.
- We can give them rotational experiences into different parts of the organization, sharing their experience and giving them new and richer experiences. For example, we can move them into sales enablement, helping onboard or train sales people. Or product management, helping developers better understand the “real world of customers.”
- We can move them into business development, partner development, alliance development roles.
There are all sorts of ways we can develop people who want to be individual contributors, but who also want to, and can, contribute at much higher levels. We have the responsibility, to continue to develop them so they can contribute in much bigger ways. We need to retain and develop these top performers, creating jobs where they are challenged and maximize their contribution.
...And Not Everyone Should Be!
A good friend and I started our careers at roughly the same time, in the same company. Over the years, we developed as sales people. We each moved to more important territories, larger accounts, more responsibility. I was anxious to move into sales management and leadership. He never could understand that. “Dave, dealing with all the corporate and people issues is mind-numbing! Why don’t you just keep selling? You could really clean up!” John didn’t want to be a manager, he just wanted to grow as a sales person.
Fortunately, our company had a dual career path strategy. People could move into management and leadership roles and grow in that career path. Others could remain individual contributors.
John has had a fascinating career path. He moved into problem territories and accounts, fixing them. He went on to specialize in new, very complex product lines, helping the company figure out how to be successful and grow with these products. For years he was a “big deal guy.” His smallest deals were $50M. He did several $1B strategic relationship deals. Eventually he moved into M&A, managing complex acquisitions.
While he coordinated many people and led large teams in many of these roles, he always did so as an individual contributor.
It’s not our products that differentiate us. It’s our talent -- our people -- that differentiate us. We need to find ways to grow and develop our top performers. We need to find ways to retain them, challenge them, enabling them to contribute at higher levels.
Not everyone wants to be a manager!