How to climb the career ladder – without managing people

8 min read | Josie Davies | Article | Career development

How to climb the career ladder – without managing people

What comes to mind when you think of a managerial role? People management, usually. And, as such, greater respect and increased pay, more experience and accountability. But do you actually want to manage people? Or do you see it more as a necessary but unfortunate step on the career ladder? 

The reality is, not everyone wants to manage people for a living. Fortunately, this is becoming less of a prerequisite to the ‘manager’ title, and you can still be recognised for your progression outside of that somewhat dated understanding of the role. Many fulfilling career pathways don’t involve a people management remit, but still offer attractive pay, progression, and a title that acknowledges your seniority in your sphere. 


It’s ok not to want to manage people

Having direct reports can be a rewarding experience, although these roles have undoubtedly become more pressured in recent years. People managers are often expected to do more with less, while workplace dynamics have become far more complicated – think multigenerational teams and overseeing hybrid working, and you start to see why one-in-two managers who have one or more direct reports feel burned out.

Wellbeing is just one element. Other reasons for taking a non-people management career pathway might be:

  • You love the hands-on element of your job: Feeling shoehorned into a people management role you wouldn’t have naturally gravitated towards could be detrimental to the skillset that made you an expert in the first place, particularly as the people-focused aspect begins to occupy more and more of your time. Without anyone to oversee, you may be able to better focus on the technical or creative aspects of your profession, getting into the nuts and bolts of what you do best.
  • You prefer more flexible working styles: Having direct reports – particularly if they’re very junior – will likely mean you’ll need to be more mindful of working from home too frequently and giving enough notice for annual leave. 
  • People management can be demanding:  This is nothing to be ashamed of; managing teams can be an emotionally draining experience – particularly with today’s external pressures and nuanced workforces – and conflict resolution is a skill that needs to be built up over time like any other.

Say you’ve decided to pursue a non-people management career pathway – what are the best ways to avoid career stagnation and keep developing as a professional?

1. Seek out career progression opportunities 

Having direct reports isn’t the only way to climb the corporate ladder. Whether it be an internal or external move, it’s possible to challenge yourself with opportunities that offer career progression without the need to manage others. If you enjoy the culture at your current organisation but feel as though you’ve plateaued professionally, you might decide to move to a new department if the role offers an uplift in responsibilities and the opportunity to earn a higher salary

However, if your current employer isn’t offering desirable non-people management pathways, it may be time to consider a new organisation. Careers these days are more fluid and less linear than ever, and it’s far more common for professionals to make sideways leaps and seek out roles that better match their evolving values and ambitions.

Rather than adding people-management to your responsibilities, you could move to an organisation that offers management-level roles without any direct reports. What shape that takes is up to you: be it increased prestige and remuneration, more scope to benefit society, or the chance to learn new skills and work with the latest tech.

2. Develop your skillsets and find a niche 

Not wanting direct reports doesn’t equate to a lack of ambition; the time and energy you save could be spent pursuing professional development and recognition in your chosen field. In practice, this might look like:

  • Continued upskilling: take online courses, attend workshops, or listen to podcasts to learn new skills and enhance existing ones. Had an eye on that prompt engineering course? Go for it.
  • Seeking recognition: this could mean targeting awards from your employer, customers, or industry bodies – you can enjoy an acclaimed career without being a leader of people.
  • Sharing your knowledge: deciding against managing people doesn’t mean you can’t coach and inspire others, which will only cement your own expertise and reputation. 

By constantly developing your skills and establishing yourself as a true specialist, you could become indispensable to your current or future employer. Or you could go it alone…

3. Be your own boss – go freelance

How does it sound to be in-demand, enjoy increased working flexibility, plus have the autonomy to make your own business decisions and charter your desired career growth? If you’re nodding in the affirmative, you could find your way as a freelancer.

As organisations across various industries look to overcome skills shortages, stay agile, and enjoy speedy access to niche expertise, the “gig-economy” has established itself as a sizeable market force – and for many, it’s far more than just a side hustle. 

Estimated at just under half a million people in the UK, this market is primarily made up of desk-based services, such as software development, writing and translation, and accounting. Being a freelancer isn’t always an easy path – but if you hone your skills and build a portfolio, you’ll be well positioned to target the opportunities available. 

There’s no doubt that being a people manager has its merits, and could be a potential platform for further promotion. However, career progression is more than just people management; there are numerous manager level opportunities outside of the people management remit. 

And remember, while you may not choose to become a people manager today, there’s always scope to change your mind. Either way, you’re the boss.

Find your next job opportunity today, or discover how much you could be earning with our free salary checker.

About this author

Josie Davies - Senior Career Transition Consultant at Hays

Josie joined Hays Career Transition Services in March 2020. She is an experienced career consultant/ coach with over 10 years of experience supporting people from a wide variety of sectors ranging from charities, government to commercial and banking. She has consistently received recognition for her solution-focused and supportive approach in assisting individuals to successfully manage career transitions. Josie trained in coaching from ICF accredited training provider, Coaching Development Ltd and is a member of the Association for Coaching.

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