For most companies, the path from an individual contributor to a people manager is not straightforward. More often than not, there are no clear end goals in sight that you have to achieve before becoming a manager. People can be promoted either by working hard and proving their worth or by purely coincidental reasons like the resignation of a senior member.
Regardless of your company’s career ladder, what can you do to make sure you’re considered for a managerial position during the next promotion period?
First, let’s clear up the confusion about what it means to be a leader versus a manager.
In most people’s minds, leadership ranks higher than management. We tend to think that a CEO is a leader, while the word “manager” brings an Office Space-esque image of an annoying middle manager holding a mug to mind. But leadership and management are not different ranks of the same set of skills. One can exist without requiring the presence of the other.
We made a note in the previous issue that leadership is a mindset and that it’s not tied to a position. Employees can be leaders without having the role power to get people to act. They just need to persuade people to follow them, without waiting for permission before putting their problem-solving skills to work.
On the other hand, managers have specific tasks: they have to make their team as effective as possible. They provide them with all the tools to get their work done and they act as breakwaters to shield them from distractions. Managers can sometimes be leaders, but it’s not always the case since their workload is already heavy enough. It’s the job of a good manager to cultivate leaders in their team.
Leaders emerge naturally in a company. Managers are promoted.
The first step is to find the cause you’re most passionate about and rally people around it. This could be a new workflow you think will benefit the whole team, or a new tool, or a new way of thinking about your day-to-day. Make the time to advocate for your cause to whoever listens and make sure to get executives on board whenever possible, as they’re those who can provide visibility and support.
When an executive gives public support to a leader’s project, they are providing that leader valuable air cover.
— Jared Spool
Finding a cause shouldn’t be disparate from the organization’s end goals, or it will never gain traction. Have in mind that companies care about increasing revenues, reducing costs, increasing new customer business (also known as market share), increasing existing customer business, or increasing shareholder value. How does your cause relate to that?
Don’t be fooled - acting as a leader is hard, thankless work. You’ll have to pursue it on top of your normal individual contributor workload and you can’t expect to be rewarded for it immediately. But this is the conundrum of being promoted: you have to act on the next level of the career ladder you are right now to be considered for promotion. If not, the Peter principle comes into play and organizations stagnate.
These are some specific ideas you can use to showcase your leadership skills and work towards a promotion to a managerial position:
Find a new tool, a new service, and share that knowledge with your wider team, preferably with your tribe. Make sure you’re highly invested in it, and that it solves a real problem for the team. As passion is contagious, people will naturally rally after you if you’re convincing enough.
There’s no better way to try out the manager hat than to be responsible for onboarding a new member to the team. Focus on providing them with all the tools they need to get as productive as fast as possible while practicing your communication and project management skills.
Most teams have at least one hairy, annoying communication problem that everybody avoids. Step in and offer to help - send that difficult email, set up that stakeholder meeting that will clear things up. Be proactive and bring your problem-solving mentality to the table.
Improve your business sense by regularly taking the time to talk with people you don’t usually work with. If you’re a developer, pair up with a salesperson and have a casual conversation over coffee. If you’re a salesperson, connect with a project manager and learn about their day-to-day. Connect the dots of how your work ties into the bigger picture.
Eventually, people will start to notice the shift in your work ethic. They’ll know that you value knowledge sharing, that you have good coaching skills, a problem-solving attitude, and a good business sense.
This is when you have to ask for a promotion. Prepare a list of concrete examples of your leadership skills and ask your manager for a stretch goal that will lead to a managerial position. Be courteous but firm and direct - you don’t beg or extort, you just want to take the next step in your career!
Even if it doesn’t work out right away, your manager will know about your aspirations and will look out for your interests in a future promotion round or reorg. And if not, that’s probably the sign that you have to switch teams or to start looking for a new job.
🙋♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post, consider subscribing! I post one issue per month.