Why management isn’t for everyone

It’s time to dispel the myth that leadership is must-take career step…

We spend an insane amount of time at work, even when we’re not working. A full-time job means you’re spending more waking hours with your colleagues than almost anyone else in your life.

Margaret Gould Stewart, VP Product Design at Facebook.

The way we actively choose to spend the biggest portion of our lives has a huge affect on the values we choose to live by. But so often in today’s job culture, “progression” is the only acknowledged career trajectory — and one that dictates all our decisions as a result. It means many of us ignore our own inner compasses which tell us how and where we want to spend our time. And many of us will find ourselves taking on management or leadership roles that we don’t necessarily align with all that well, in a bid to be seen as moving forwards.

Margaret Stewart, VP of Product Design at Facebook believes that companies and leaders should let employees try out management roles, and the increased responsibilities that they bring, to see how people like it first of all, inviting them to move into another role if it doesn’t feel like the right fit. “We need to try to remove the stigma between moving back and forth like this”, she said.

At Facebook she points out that “many people who’ve had a long, rich experience as an individual contributor then try management because they think: “actually, I get more satisfaction creating the conditions for other people to do design work than I do myself.” So we say “that’s interesting, let’s create that opportunity for you to try that and see if that hypothesis you had is true.” And sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. The ability to move back with no stigma attached is so important.

Key to removing this stigma is a universal acknowledgement that being a manager is hard, and not something we’re all going to be naturally good at. “Oh my gosh, I wish someone had told me that becoming a manager was something you had to learn how to do!…Mollie Chen, co-founder of Birchbox told us, “…it’s the hardest thing to do!

In today’s work culture people often feel forced or coerced into taking on more responsibility in order to gain recognition. As Mollie illustrates though, management involves spending a large portion of your time looking out for other people, and that’s an extra responsibility you have to be prepared to take on: “I think management is a good experience for people to have and it often is necessary in order to be able to take on bigger projects” she said, “but I think it always has to be balanced by the fact that you’re now the caretaker of this relationship and this person’s development path. The truth is: part of your job and their success is now directly related to how much work you put into that relationship.” As Mollie points out, that additional responsibility isn’t going to be a fit for everyone.

So why does society place such an unrealistic expectation on management when the reality is so different?

The definition of a leader I grew up with was a heroic leader” says leadership development specialist and executive coach Carolyn Coughlin. “Even through business school, leaders were supposed to know everything. Leaders are charismatic like Jack Welsh; leaders are really smart; they have the answers; they can see the future; they can make things happen… but to do all that is impossible.”

Instead, Carolyn urges us to see leadership as something we need to nurture and water. “You can’t just hand someone a bottle of leadership and say: “You’re a leader now!” Just as you can’t hand someone a bottle of trust, or collaboration, or any of those things.”

Companies will make much more progress Carolyn thinks, when they understand that management is a complex issue. And mirroring Margaret’s advice she pointed out that “complexity suggests you need to try lots of little things and just keep nudging. There’s never a victory — there’s just continuing to create great conditions in your organisation.”

Role Models hosts candid conversations with inspiring women and is a bi-weekly podcast and event series motivating the next generation of global leaders.

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Photo: Kerstin Musl