Recently, I received a thought-provoking question from a reader who finds themselves at a crossroads in their career. They currently lead a team, enjoying the aspects of mentorship, fostering a positive culture, and building relationships. Now, however, they’re starting to miss having direct responsibility for the work. The question “How can I progress in my career without necessarily ascending the management ladder?”
This is a problem that lots of leaders and managers face, but aren’t sure what to do about it… and one that can actually feel a bit embarrassing, as everyone’s supposed to aspire to the top echelons of a big company, aren’t they? (Plot spoiler: no. It’s totally OK not to want to do that).
Here are my thoughts:
1. Define ‘getting ahead’
First up – you need to work out what it means to ‘get ahead’ to you. For some people, success is money, for others it’s power, or recognition, or something else. Is it working for yourself, or staying in a big company? Senior, mid-level, or junior? Niche expert or generalist? At home or in an office? Having a clear idea of what will make you happy at work is critical.
Then, consider: if all other elements were brilliant, would you still hate people management, or would it be OK if the rest of the job was great?
2. Know your options
Then you can narrow down the roles that are suitable: those that are just the role, or also those that are the role plus a small amount of people management. By the way, being less keen on people management doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be bad at it – some of the best people managers are those that prefer the work itself to the management and are inspiring role models for how to do this kind of job.
If you decide that people management really isn’t for you, and you want to be an expert or consultant, your choices are likely to be: in-house consultancy or senior technical expert; a consultant in a consultancy firm; or starting your own freelance/consultancy business. In all scenarios, you’ll be a critical friend, coming to a situation with an external pair of eyes, analysing, and then providing helpful recommendations. Depending for your appetite for it, and the type of business you work for, you’ll possibly be involved in implementing the solutions, too.
If you stay in-house, you’ll need to find a role which fits your tolerance level for management.
If you want to move to a proper consultancy practice, you can do the usual job application process for open positions; or you can contact consultancies who you know will be interested in your skills and see if they are open to a speculative job conversation. This is a common route for those coming in partway through their career and consultancies will be very used to, and welcome, these conversations.
3. Work out appropriate next steps
If you stay in your current company, you’ll need to find a role which fits your tolerance level for management. Broker a conversation with senior management and ask them what’s available? Are there roles like this? If so, how do you land one? If not, can they create one for you?
If you want to move to a proper consultancy practice, you can do the usual job application process for open positions; or you can contact consultancies who you know will be interested in your skills and see if they are open to a speculative job conversation. The latter is a good option for pointing out your particular skills and what you can bring. Tap up your personal network to see if you have anyone who can help. Speculative conversations leading to jobs is a common route for mid-career hires and consultancy practices will be very used to, and welcome, these conversations.
If you decide to go it alone, you’ll need to develop skills in marketing, sales, customer relationship management, networking, finance, etc. And you’ll need to build up projects in your pipeline so you aren’t short of work. This takes a while and it’s a reason why I advocate that people get as far along in their consultancy journey as they can before they hand their notice in. Create the website. Build the LinkedIn profile. Make the connections. Have some conversations with warm leads. Because depending on your industry, work will take between about three months to two years to materialise from the day you open your consultancy for business.
Three resources to help with moving away from leadership:
- I don’t want to be a leader: how to develop other careers:
- Making a mid-career transition into consulting:
- Is working for myself the right option for me?
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