Not All Ladders Lead to Management

Most companies have a core of employees working as individual contributors in their technical or specialty areas. When a first-level manager position opens up, the company looks at the people working in that group as potential candidates for the job. Perhaps one employee in particular — we’ll call her Kiley — has been doing an outstanding job as an individual contributor and, because she has done so well in that role, she is asked to move into the vacant management role.

Kiley, however, is uncertain about the move. She finds the technical work fascinating, gets great satisfaction from her role, and has always thought about making a career in her specialty area. She also enjoys the collegiality of working with others in the group to solve problems and explore new possibilities together. She appreciates being given the opportunity to move into management, but has many questions and concerns about what it will mean for her career.

She asks her talent manager: “What information can you give me about this management job, the new responsibilities that come with the role, the challenges I will face, and how my life will change if I move out of my individual contributor role and into a management career path? Can you predict the odds of my succeeding as a manager? What does it take to succeed as a manager in this company and to climb its management career ladder? What are my career prospects if I decide to focus on my specialty area rather than moving into management? What will it take for me to succeed in a technical career path and climb the technical career ladder?”

The Management Career Path
For many employees, moving into management is seen as the primary way to succeed. After all, there is often a clear pathway from a first-level manager position all the way to the top of the organization. Further, in many companies managers make higher salaries than technical specialists with similar backgrounds and levels of experience.

In many companies, however, there are two alternatives, a technical career path and a management career path, and talent leaders need to explain the costs and benefits of each path to employees like Kiley so they can make an informed choice.

People who leave their technical jobs to move into management typically start as a manager of individual contributors. The next step is usually a move to a middle management role, and the progression continues to the top of the organization — the number of steps to reach that goal depends on the height of a company’s organizational pyramid. Ram Charan and his co-authors in The Leadership Pipeline describe how this orientation must change with each move up the ladder, generally moving further from the specifics of the original specialty area toward a broader understanding of the company’s business with each subsequent level. This may be frustrating to the employee — recall Kiley loved working with her specialty and was good at it or she wouldn’t have been considered for the management position — and challenging because any previous education, training and experience likely focused primarily on the technical or specialty area where the individual began his or her career.

The answer is to create a dual career path where technical specialists can focus on their specialty areas and still have opportunities for advancement without having to move into general management. Talented individuals who aren’t given this option may not be as happy about their career prospects because they may not want to move into management roles. As a result, their levels of engagement and commitment to the company may suffer. A dual career path can resolve the issue.

Half a century ago, Lawrence J. Peter wrote The Peter Principle. Simply stated, this principle is: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This principle generally holds true. If an employee — we’ll call him Jeff — is an outstanding performer as an individual contributor, he is considered for a management role. If Jeff does well as a first-level manager, he is then considered for a promotion to a mid-level manager, and if he continues succeeding, he keeps getting promoted until he reaches a level where he isn’t doing so well. Then, Jeff either gets locked into that level doing a mediocre job and is never considered for a higher-level position, he resigns or he is fired.

To avoid this situation, talent leaders should make candidates for management positions aware of the competencies needed to succeed at various levels of management, screen candidates to find those who either have those competencies or have an interest in developing them, and provide the training needed to ensure candidates develop the full set of competencies needed to succeed at each management level.

Talent leaders also should make employees aware that even though the company’s organization chart displays a clear path from first-level manager all the way up to CEO, the pyramid shape of the organization chart also illustrates that each higher rung on the management ladder is narrower than the one below. That means not everyone at a given management level will have the opportunity to climb higher, but many people can find a rewarding career at each level.

The Technical Career Path
If an employee wants to stay on a technical career path rather than become a manager, remaining a marketing programs specialist, a medical laboratory technician, a customer service representative or any other technical specialty area, that person should be privy to the prospects for career growth within that specialty area. The company may have several steps on the technical career ladder — specialist 1, specialist 2, on down the line — and may have broad salary ranges for each level so the employee has room for growth over time.

The company also may have instituted a technical career ladder where employees can grow within their specialty areas and eventually reach the salary and benefits levels available at similar levels on the management career ladder such as directors and vice presidents in the company.
Many companies, such as Aspen Technology, the late Digital Equipment Corp. and others that established technical career ladders use a strict set of criteria for promotion. Each candidate has to prepare a portfolio of evidence that is reviewed by a panel that makes the promotional decisions.

While there is a stereotype of the technical genius who locks himself in a laboratory or cubicle and never interacts with other people, the fact is everyone must learn to work with others. As a person rises to higher levels on the technical ladder, there is often a requirement that the employee, although not moving into a management role, act as a team leader and as a mentor or coach to more junior staff. And, as an individual continues to rise on the technical ladder, the employee also must broaden his or her view of the business because the decisions made at higher levels will be more strategic than the technical work done at lower levels. This can be done through formal education programs, by having the employee serve on cross-functional teams to broaden an individual’s view of the company’s work, through a job rotation program where the technical specialist moves through a number of different groups to learn more about the overall business processes, or by having a mentor who can advance one’s scope of the business.

The employee also must understand there will be fewer slots at the top of the technical ladder than at lower levels. Just as the company limits the number of vice presidents it has, it will limit the number of people at the highest levels of the technical ladder.

If a company wants to retain the technical talent it needs for the future, it should explore how it might create a technical career ladder that parallels its existing management career ladder. Then talented employees in various specialty areas can build their careers within those specialties without having to abandon them to become a manager to advance their careers.

Daniel R. Tobin is a consultant, author and speaker on corporate learning strategies and leadership development and the author of seven books, including Technical Career Path or Management Career Path: Which Career Ladder is Right for You? He can be reached at