For some people, success is a clear path – working your way up in a company and gradually taking more responsibilities, before being trusted to manage a team.
Having the opportunity to manage other people can come with many benefits. Not only do you gain skills yourself – like being able to communicate well, plan and problem-solve – but it also allows you to help others move forward in their careers, too.
Contrary to popular opinion, though, managing other people isn’t the only definition of success.
Whether you’re a consultant, a graphic designer or a lawyer, working as an individual contributor is hugely rewarding. For one, it allows you to focus on a job that makes the most of your skills and talent, while avoiding a lot of the issues and stress that can come with managing people.
There’s no black-or-white definition of success. For some, managing others is an enjoyable and rewarding part of their career. For others, it’s a distraction from what they really want to do.
Lauren Chiren is the founder of Women of a Certain Stage, which provides education and training for third sector and businesses on mental health and on menopause in the workplace. Although she doesn’t manage a team, her business is successful - and she delivers talks in the US and UK, as well as having private coaching clients.
“I am a sole parent and love that I get to determine my schedule and work hours to suit my son and I,” she says. “I dance to my own tune and can fit in self care, planning my social time and pace myself according to my own energy levels.”
The problem with seeing management as a marker of success is that everyone who wants to be successful expects to manage a team at some point. Yet being a good manager relies on developing certain skills or having character traits that not everybody has. In fact, according to research by Gallup, only one in 10 people possess the necessary traits – like being able to motivate and engage employees, being assertive enough to overcome problems, being able to create a culture of accountability, or building relationships that create trust and making decisions based on productivity rather than politics.
The impact of putting someone in a management position who isn’t qualified can be hugely detrimental to a business. According to recent research, a bad boss can have a significant impact on both employee productivity and mental health, which in turn has an effect on worker retention.
“Being assigned a team to manage has been seen as a sign of 'climbing the ladder' for such a long time,” says Angharad Salazar Llewellyn, founder of The Flex Network, which connects freelancers and small business owners.
“However, this responsibility hasn't always given to those with natural managerial skills, or even those who want to set aside time to nurture the talent around them rather than just focus on their own specialist knowledge development,” she adds.
“It's a system that's unfair on all those involved. The manager is now in a role which isn't playing to their strengths, and the team are left in a position where they aren't being utilised to their full potential. Managing others is a real skill, and should be allocated according to desired professional development, and not just based on strong performance.”
If someone doesn’t want to manage other people, Llewellyn explains, this enables them to focus solely on their areas of expertise. They can become a “category specialist” without having to set aside time for team management – “or having to develop the breadth of knowledge required to nurture a team with great effect,” she adds.
“Looking at the wider workforce, the benefit of creating a bespoke job experience, designed to play an individual's own key strengths and lifestyle choices – whether this be caring responsibilities, a love of the gym or a hate of a long daily commute – is huge,” Llewellyn says.
This is something many freelancers and self-employed people are particularly skilled in doing. For example, picking up projects that play to their strengths and areas of expertise and fitting it all into the times when they want to work, she adds.
“We can now see this influencing the workforce, where managers are able to use developments in technology to enable a real leap forward in flexible working, playing to an individual employee's strengths and thus designing a bespoke job experience for them.”