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Why growing as a specialist often doesn't mean scaling the ladder [Interview]

Why growing as a specialist often doesn't mean scaling the ladder [Interview] Blog Feature

John Becker

Revenue and Features Editor, Co-host of Content Lab, 15+ Years of Writing and Teaching Experience

July 1st, 2020 min read

When many people think of an ideal professional career path, they expect that it will lead from an entry level position, through management, to senior leadership.

But not everyone is well-suited to managerial duties, especially if it means they no longer get to do the work directly aligned with their particular skill set or passions.

After all, if you take a skilled computer programmer and suddenly put her in charge of other programmers, she might not enjoy leading a group of her former peers — and you likely will lose her development skills as her time gets taken up by other duties. 

Some people want to follow the 'traditional' growth path — other don't.

In Radical Candor, former Google and Apple executive Kim Scott divides workers into superstars and rockstars, who each represent a different professional growth trajectory and have unique needs from their employers.

“To keep a team cohesive, you need both rockstars and superstars,” she advises, noting that the path that appeals to one might not appeal to the other. 

In other words, the corporate world needs to broaden and contextualize the way it defines success in order to properly serve all of its employees.

IMPACT’s Google Ads expert Jason Linde spoke to me about why managerial work is not for everyone, and what companies can do to make specialists feel, well, special.

If success is not climbing the ladder, what is it?

John: Do professionals need to reevaluate how they define success?

Jason: I think I’m probably the perfect person to talk to about this. The reason why I say that is because I'm 46 years old, I have worked in manufacturing, I’ve worked in investment, and I have worked in multiple agencies.

I got into marketing a long time ago, coming out of college, but I also became a network engineer — so, very niche. And then I became an ad specialist. So I took marketing and narrowed it down. 

I've been at multiple companies and have seen success and failures based on how companies handle what they determined to be success. I’ve seen people get passed over, and I’ve seen people get thrust into a new position, whether it was earned or not. 

And I’ve experienced it first hand. Being thrust into a managerial role when I was working in the manufacturing sector.

Finding yourself in the wrong role

John: Talk to me about finding yourself in a managerial role that wasn't a good fit.

Jason: So, I had my specialty, I was very focused, and then the person in management suddenly quit. So there was this immediate exit and there was no growth plan in place. The company didn't have somebody already cued up that was set to take over.

They needed a new leader, and I was the senior of the group. 

And it seemed enticing. It was a promotion, I had a new title, and I was suddenly making more money. And that’s a very common circumstance. The company scrambles to fill a position, and then the new manager is forced to sort of learn on the job. 

John: How long were you in that role before you figured out it wasn't right? How long did you stay in it?

Jason: I tend to accept challenges, so I actually stayed in that role for years — until the company shut down in 2006.

But I can tell you, it only took me weeks to realize I was not qualified for the position. 

I was really pushed into a management position. I wasn't ready to start having heavy conversations with staff. These are the people I once joked around with as peers, and now all of a sudden I need to say, look, you're not performing.

So, it was nice to feel proud of that promotion, but then when that reality comes in and you're not ready, it's a struggle.

And then you start thinking, was this even worth it? Why did I say yes? How do I get back to where I was?

How should companies replace a departing manager?

John: When a company has a manager leave, they’re in a tough spot. How could your company have handled that better? 

Jason: I think what companies should do is have a plan that’s based on their organizational chart: How many managers do we have and what are the qualifications that each of these managers need?

And so, when that moment arises of somebody leaving, they have the checklist of what qualities they need.  

Then, they can look at their team. Is there a logical person that would fill that spot?

It can’t just be, well, Jason was here for X amount of time so it should be him. They have to be qualified — and they have to want to move into the new role.

Questioning traditional notions of success

John: We can look at it from the business perspective, but we also have to see it from the individual’s perspective as well. It’s heavily ingrained in people that promotions along a certain trajectory equal happiness. 

Jason: Right. I think people really lust after those titles. 

I was once hired to be a network engineer for a big investment company in Maryland. And I came from a world where you didn't get elevated unless you had been at the company 10 plus years. You had to really be invested in the company before you were hitting management level.

I got to this investment company and it felt like everybody was a director or VP of something. It almost seemed like LinkedIn came in and just vomited titles all over the place.

I couldn't understand how the company could manage at that volume of seniority with very few worker bees underneath. 

So now, in a post-COVID downturn, you have all these people looking for work. You have skilled people who were VP of sales, and then you have somebody who was just given that title or thrust into that position — they both still have VP of sales on their resume.

They both still want a six figure salary and the big bonuses and everything else. But one is actually qualified and one is not. 

My wife ran a marketing agency for years, and when we started getting large enough that we could start hiring, we had younger employees come on who just immediately started asking for titles. 

I'm of a different generation; I see a need to spend some time in the trenches. 

For them, they wanted the prestige — to be able to go on any social platform and be able to say, I'm now VP of this or that.

The Peter principle

John: The Peter principle, according to Wikipedia, “is a concept in management developed by Laurence J. Peter, which observes that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their ‘level of incompetence’: an employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.” 

What are your thoughts on that?

Jason: I've always agreed with this. And I think it is further compounded by a lack of support that often comes along with advancement.

Without follow-up or training, without further education, you’re not likely to be successful. 

What if you aren’t ready to be radically candid with your direct reports? What if you aren’t ready to emotionally understand how you need to compartmentalize your work? 

That’s what can happen when you start promoting. 

I’m really good at Google ads. I could sit and talk about all day long. I feel comfortable in and out of it. 

But now if I'm suddenly a manager, now my duties are changing, and if I'm not ready for that, and I don't have the tools to help me get through it, then I am incompetent. 

The company has to make the choice to recognize this and have a system in place with ways to add to my toolbox so I can get better.

John: The company better make sure you’re going to be a great manager because, by promoting you, it’s going to lose your Google Ads expertise. If you get promoted and are unhappy, they could lose you for good.

Jason: That's correct. That goes back to a company doing its due diligence to clarify expectations and make sure employees are supported.

Rockstars and Superstars

John: In Radical Candor, Kim Scott writes about superstars and rockstars. The former wants to climb quickly. The latter wants to develop a skill set and become a specialist. 

It doesn't make rockstars less intelligent or less ambitious. It's just different. In fact, your company needs both to be successful.

And, if we recognize that there are multiple paths to progressing through your career, we can serve those two camps much better.

Jason: Yes. It reminds us to ask “what else could success look like?”

For somebody who is a specialist, what makes them happy? What would their success look like? It could be accolades, awards, bonuses, or announcements that offer recognition. And then, there's also like the financial side. People want to grow and scale up and make more money.

There are ways to give people more responsibility without moving them into a managerial role. Being trusted, being brought into deeper conversations, overseeing projects or initiatives — all of these recognize growth without just making someone a manager. 

If someone has passion and expertise for what they do, a company should recognize, celebrate, and reward that. 

When we broaden the way we define success, we allow more people to feel successful.

We can end up with a happy company of dedicated workers who love to work hard, grow, and see the rewards of the labor, not just a top-heavy place where everyone was promoted to VP and that label doesn’t really mean anything anymore. 

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