Careers

Succeeding in your career doesn’t have to mean managing others, here’s why

Not everyone is built to become a manager. Here journalist Christina Quaine speaks to women who are kicking ass in their careers, without leading a team. 

When you think about your future work self, what do you see?

Perhaps you’re presiding over a sweeping desk in the manner of Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada, terrifying any minion who dares to cross your path? Or maybe you’re more of a Miranda Bailey in Grey’s Anatomy, offering a firm but supportive leadership style to your interns?

Or maybe, just maybe, you’re not that interested in a future role in management. The truth is that some of us aren’t suited, or don’t aspire to, leadership roles. While there aren’t any statistics available for UK workers specifically, findings suggest that only a third (34%) of those in the US want to step into leadership roles.  

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So why does this so often feel like the only way to advance your earnings and status? Why must we get promoted out of doing what we love, whether that’s computing, nursing, writing or teaching, in order to get ahead?

“Most people are promoted to management because they have very good technical skills, not because they have any aptitude or experience of managing people,” Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, tells Stylist. “In too many businesses there is a misconception that you can learn how to be a people manager on the job, while the skills needed to do it well can be quickly picked up. While some individuals have a natural gift for managing people, others find they are much less suited to it.” 

Female manager
You don't need to become a manager to feel like you're doing well at work.

What’s more, there are mental health implications for those up top. A recent report from the Chartered Management Institute found that managers are facing a mental health crisis thanks to the pressure of always being ‘on’ and feeling trapped between the expectations of their own bosses and the team they manage.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Below, three women who are smashing their career goals without stepping into management roles tell us how. 

“I’ve been promoted twice in five years – all without managing others”

becky

Becky Spenceley Buckham, 28, lives in London. She is a senior associate at global architecture and design firm, Gensler.

“I got a job at Gensler five years ago after graduating from university and in that time, I’ve earned two promotions. Two years after joining I was promoted to associate and in December 2018 I became senior associate. But getting to this level doesn’t mean that I’m managing. Instead, my role is about designing, developing and growing the business, bringing in project work and nurturing client relationships.

My specialism is workplace design and right now, I’m the lead designer on a campus renovation project for software company Adobe, in San Jose, California. I travel there every two weeks to oversee the design and it’s an incredible job. It’s a new building which our team in the States designed and I’m leading a team of 10 on the interior design. We’re creating everything – the walls, the floors, joinery, shelving, units, lighting, doors, furniture and accessories, right through to plant pots and picture frames.

I love the design process. It starts with ‘visioning’ sessions with the client where I get an understanding of their look and feel, and how they envisage their workspace, then I develop their story to make meaningful design decisions. Then myself and the team get going with the design. I really enjoy that team collaboration. Although part of my role is to oversee the design team, I’m designing every day just like they are. The only extra I do is review the work of some of the junior designers to make sure they’re going in the direction the client wants.

For me, the best feeling is when I walk into the finished space I’ve worked on and talk to the people who are using it. They tell me, ‘I love coming into the office now because the space is brilliant.’ I can really see the physical and emotional effects my work has on its users. For me, that’s the biggest kick.”  

 “Working for a small fashion brand keeps me doing the things I love”

zohra

Zohra Shahana Khan, 25, lives in London and is marketing manager for sustainable fashion brand Doc Cotton.

“Doc Cotton makes bespoke organic garments in Peckham, SE London, and as a start-up the team is small enough that I don’t have any employees to manage – and that really suits me.

My job is hands on. I’m in the same room as the people who make our garments and I do everything from building the website to managing social media. In a typical day, I might film what the makers are doing for our social media channels, look for editorial opportunities and oversee photoshoots either on location or in the photography studio we have on site.

The business is growing and by the end of the year, we may have a marketing assistant on board. Who knows what the future holds but for now, I love having just my own time to manage. I would find it hard to do less of the stuff I enjoy [if I was a manager] as I would have to make sure that everyone else is fulfilling their duties. For me to want to manage, I would either have to oversee a small team or it would have to be a collaborative effort where everyone is on the same level.”

“I set up my own consultancy to keep using the skills I trained for”

Dr Victoria Khromova, 37, lives in Sheffield. She works part-time as an NHS child and adolescent psychiatry consultant and she also runs her own parent coaching business, Emerging Parent.

“Once you reach consultant level in medicine – as I did in 2015 – the only way up is often via the management ladder or by doing research. But clinical work is my passion and those avenues would take me away from that.

I’m lucky that in my NHS job I do far more clinical than managerial work. I’m based on an in-patient unit for 13-18 year olds with mental health conditions, such as eating disorders, depression and psychosis. It’s so fulfilling seeing patients get better and I get to see the direct results of my efforts. If I was in a managerial role I wouldn’t get to see a huge amount of those real stories. Often, we’ll have adolescents admitted who haven’t been in school for years, yet once they’re better they go to college, get back to seeing friends and doing normal things that teenagers do. Knowing that I’ve been a part of that is so rewarding. 

When I was recently offered a promotion that would increase my hours and involve extra management responsibilities, I decided against it. My initial reaction was to say yes. It’s flattering that your peers think you’d be good at nurturing them, but when I imagined doing the job, I realised that wasn’t what I wanted. I’d end up going on management courses whereas, instead, I’ve been on courses about working more effectively with parents.

I was also able to launch my own parent coaching business, Emerging Parent, in November 2018. The idea is that I use my skills as a psychiatrist to coach parents through common challenges such as school bullying or separation, helping them deal with those issues as best they can. It’s early days for the business but it’s growing and, like my NHS work, I love that I get to experience those one-to-one interactions that just wouldn’t come with a management role.” 

Three ways to advance your career without becoming a manager

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, shares his best advice.

Stay on top of your game: “Keep upskilling. You need to become an expert in your field, so look at the further professional development you need in order to do that, whether it’s extra qualifications or training courses.”

Design your own job: “It’s increasingly important that employers are open to designing jobs that play to individual strengths rather than having a vanilla approach to talent management. So have a discussion with your line manager and HR team about the skills you have, why you’re an expert, why they don’t want to lose you and why you should be promoted.”

Research your sector: “Look at the progression opportunities for technical specialists in your industry. For instance, in engineering the whole business model depends on the expertise of its engineers. Jobs may be advertised at senior levels which are very specialist and you can gauge whether there’s a progression pathway for the sort of career you’re interested in, which doesn’t depend on becoming a manager.”

Images: Getty, Unsplash, courtesy of authors

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