Originally published by Hays Canada

The “standard” career path hasn’t changed in many years. You move from entry-level to junior and intermediate, become an expert in your area, and step into a team or project manager role, and from that platform advance through to more senior roles.

Managing people might seem like the only way to advance your career, but it’s not the right choice for everyone. Whether you don’t want to be responsible for managing different personalities and team dynamics, or you prefer to stay on the front line as a “doer” instead of a “manager”, if people management isn’t for you, there are still ways to move up the ranks in title, responsibility, and influence, without having to lead a team.

I know a number of ambitious, successful people who didn’t want to manage people so they forged their own career path, including reaching senior roles. Here’s how you can be one of them.

Step 1: Become an indispensable expert

The first step to pursuing the non-people management route, is to become a guru or expert in your area. Take advantage of every learning opportunity available, be it by reading blogs and books, finding a mentor, or asking your boss if you can go on a professional course.

Increasing your knowledge needs to become a habit, rather than a one-off task that you tick off of your list and forget all about. No doubt your area of expertise will change and evolve, and if you want to stay relevant and in the loop, you must commit to always being inquisitive, on the ball, and keen to learn more.

Step 2: Build your reputation

Look for opportunities to market your expertise, both inside your existing organization and across your wider industry or network. At the very least, you should be adding enhancements in your expertise to your CV and professional profiles as you go along. But how else can you build a strong reputation?

Use social media to self-promote: Connect to the right people both inside and outside your organization, and start building your online reputation. Share relevant content and get involved in industry forum discussions. Starting a blog is a great way to share your expert insights and demonstrate your knowledge in a particular area. Regular blogging is also a good means of building a targeted following.

Seek out speaking opportunities
: Don’t hide behind a keyboard, get out there and share your knowledge face-to-face. Look out for opportunities to speak or present at upcoming conferences, team meetings or at industry events.

Offer to train others: Whether it’s new starters or other departments in the business, this is one sure-fire way to showcase your knowledge and build your reputation within your current organization.

Share your ideas: Be proactive in generating and sharing your ideas, not just surrounding your immediate role, but also for the wider business. This will show that, like a true expert, you can think outside the box and understand the bigger picture.

If you can establish yourself as an expert in your field in the minds of key decision makers both within your internal and external network, this will equip you for the next steps along your non-people management path.

Step 3: Have an honest conversation with your boss

Once you are confident and credible in your expert status, it’s time to think about how to take your career to the next level. Perhaps a meeting to discuss your career path is on the horizon, or you are due an appraisal with your boss. If not, take the lead and set up a meeting.

Approach this meeting with your boss in a constructive way, making sure you convey the over-arching message that you want to stay within this company and progress your career, but without managing people.

In advance of the meeting, plan ahead, preparing some examples of how you have taken it upon yourself to increase your skills set, plus the positive impact this has had on the business. Remember to include measurable results. I would also advise that you try to think of some possible internal non-people management career paths to suggest to your boss, for instance becoming closely involved in a project which could benefit from your specialist skills. Preparing some options is particularly important if people management is generally the most common route for career progression within the company.

Your boss should be supportive and open to your proposals, offering up their own suggestions in terms of how your role could develop without you needing to manage people. However, if, for whatever reason, the only clear path to progression within your company involves people management, it could be time to start looking elsewhere, which brings me onto my next point.

Step 4: Consider external opportunities

If you are unable to progress your career by following a non-people management route in your current company, you could consider the options below. These all offer career progression in one way or another, whether it’s an increase in responsibility, income, professional development, or all three:

Join another organization: Speak to a recruiter to discuss the career opportunities available at other organizations. Many companies will offer non-people management progression paths, such as being a project manager, with the scope to take on incremental responsibilities as you go along.

Become an independent contractor: Becoming a contractor will offer you progression in the sense that you would be more focused on the skills you were hired to deploy, and more conscientious in applying these skills as best you can for the sake of your future contracts.

Work as a consultant: In a similar vein, as a consultant you would be subcontracted by a company to provide specialist knowledge. This would incentivize you to develop your skills even further to keep up with your competitors, and for the sake of repeat business. Again, this option offers progression in both responsibility and expertise.

Train others: If you are really good at what you do, people will hire you to come and train their employees. Teaching others will help you to clarify and build upon your knowledge, keeping it fresh and relevant.

Become an influencer: If you are an expert, people will listen to your insights. They will buy your books, read your blogs, download your podcasts, and pay to see you speak at events. This is the ultimate indicator of knowledge progression, but it will take time. Remember, though, every influencer started out like you.

You may choose not to try people management, that doesn’t mean your career progression is limited. In many organizations the career path of an aspiring people manager is easier to plan and envisage, so you may need to think outside the box. Focus on developing a set of skills and carve your niche to establish yourself as an expert in your area and open your world up to a range of promising progression paths.

And you may find that your preferences change throughout your career. These days, many people move in and out of people management roles depending on internal opportunities, business needs, and personal priorities. The steps above are good advice no matter what your career goals are and will help you keep your options open.

Ready to take the first step? Search for jobs in your area or field.


Rowan O’Grady is the president of Hays Canada.