Why we need to reevaluate our definition of professional success
University of Exeter/FlickrLast month, someone wrote in to the career advice site Ask A Manager about how to decline a promotion into leadership. The post sparked nearly 100 comments, mostly from readers who sympathized with the person's dilemma.
The conversation on AAM highlights a key problem with the structure of many modern businesses. Too often, companies encourage high-performers who aren't fit to be managers (or don't want to be managers) to seek out those opportunities. In doing so, they may end up undermining their organization's progress by not allowing people to do what they do best.
Today, many professionals equate career development and success with people management. It's hard to say for sure how or when this idea originated. Americans have been obsessed with the image of the charismatic leader for years, at least since the publication of Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People" in 1936.
In the book, Carnegie insisted that technical skill is not enough - professional and financial success is largely a result of the ability to inspire and motivate people.
Certainly, Carnegie is right; being able to communicate your ideas and enthusiasm is essential for success in any field. But at some point, the concept of motivating other people was interpreted as having a group of employees to tell what to do.
The problem is that not everyone should be in charge of a team. Managing others effectively requires commitment and a certain set of skills, including communication, empathy, and long-term planning. Some people are better suited to other kinds of leadership.
Indeed, plenty of business experts have pointed out that people can lead and inspire at all levels of an organization. When you think about how you can be more effective and creative in your job, you are being a leader; when you present new ideas to the people you report to, you are also being a leader.
But we haven't yet reached the point where people who can lead in those ways are praised and financially rewarded in the same way that high-level managers are.
None of this is to say that organizations don't need some people managers, but developing multiple tracks for advancement could potentially boost a company's bottom line, since it allows employees to play to their professional strengths instead of struggling with their weaknesses.
For example, several commenters on the AAM post said they work for organizations that offer multiple tracks for moving up - one for people managers and one for "subject matter experts" or "technical experts."
It's time to shift the way we as a society view leadership and professional success, so that managing others is just one of several options for ambitious people who want to excel.
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