Disassembling Leadership

Management Is A Career Change

2 minute read

Managers rise to the level of their incompetence.
— Peter Principle

The Peter Principle is a dire consequence of the misjudgement I explained previously:

One of the biggest issues around the idea of management is that they assume that the manager is a person able to do two things at the same time: manage people and build visions.
Team and Vision Are Two Different Skills

Once one starts to understand that “management” is just the conflation of these two skills, and they are like any other skill, you can also understand why it’s erroneous to assume that becoming a manager is a promotion.

Becoming a manager is a career change, not a promotion.

This is one of the most common sentences we use inside Automattic (coming from Lindsay Holmwood) when referring about people that take the role of a team lead.

“The truth of the matter is this: you are woefully unprepared for a career in management, and you are unaware of how badly unprepared you are”.
— Lindsay Holmwood (2014) It’s not a promotion – It’s a career change

Why does this keep happening then?

Because we conflated values and prestige into the company hierarchy, and as such we consider hierarchy as “moving up” and thus, a career advancement.

Notice how bad this is. Hierarchies exist as a mean to organize, not to rank people, unfortunately this difference disappeared over time, for too many reasons to be explored here.

There’s a natural push to create hierarchies, and a natural bias to consider “leads” as “higher up” in the hierarchy. So any company that wants to solve this issue, needs to offset this bias actively and continuously.

This is true also for individual managers: they need to keep being in the team, not above it.

Offset the Bias and Careers

To try to offset this natural push, companies and teams can do different things:

  1. Career paths for each role need to be clear and need to advance in non-management ways (i.e. a developer should be able to progress without a career change to management). Hirarchies are often used as career paths, but it’s not just lazy but also harmful to use them in this way.
  2. The bias needs to be offset actively and continously, by stating clearly that management and lead roles are a career change, what kind of tasks are implied, and that the old tasks aren’t required anymore.
  3. Lead and management roles needs to be fluid, not once and for all. One can jump in a lead position for some time, and then go back to the previous work, for any reason. Of course this assuming that the skills are present.
  4. Salary needs to be correlated to experience, not hierarchy. This means that a manager doesn’t get more money just because the management role a Junior Manager, a Junior PM and a Junior Developer should get a comparable amount of money (which sure, can change within itself due to different market pressures on each of these roles). This is a very clear way to state the parity of roles.

There are probably many other ways to address this, but the above are the ones I found more effective in my direct experience.

Do you have other techniques you found effective to offset this bias? Let me know.

Who’s Responsibility is it?