Consider a software engineer, we’ll call him Dan, who has become an exceptional programmer. He creates great quality code, is fast, communicates well and enjoys his work. After a few years in that role, the company needs to build out a team and considers “how about we promote Dan to lead the team? He’s certainly proven himself.”
Dan takes the new manager role and is excited to get started. However, after a few weeks he notices how different managing a team is that his previous job. Dan is passionate about programming, but as a manager he is doing very little of it. He is focused more on making his team successful than making his code successful. He realizes that he actually isn’t nearly as passionate about people management, and finds himself longing to go back to his role as an individual contributor.
In many career paths, once you master skills as an individual contributor, a natural progression is to become a team leader and manage people. While this path makes sense for some, it’s flawed to assume that just because you are great at a specific skill (e.g. programming) that you will also be great at manager other people with the same skill. Many eager new managers get hit with the harsh reality that management and individual contribution feel very different.
To avoid the potential pitfalls of a switch from individual contributor, and to decide if you should become a manager, consider these 5 questions.
1. Would you rather interact with people or machines?
I know many engineers who have tried management and realized that they really enjoy programming, and managing programmers is not nearly as fun to them. Not everyone is interested in management, so consider whether you’d rather spend time dealing with people problems or technical problems. To be sure, replace “engineer” with “chef” or any other role where you are creating something.
2. Can you articulate complex concepts simply?
Managers need to be able to explain concepts — often complex ones — in a simple way for the team to digest and act on. This requires excellent communication skills and plenty of patience. In an individual contributor role, you can attack problems yourself to ultimately figure them out. In a manager role, you often need to step back and let your team members figure it out for themselves.
3. Can you focus on communication?
As an individual contributor, you can often spend long periods of time focused and autonomously working on a project. If you become a manager, a big part of your role becomes communication. You’ll often need to answer questions for your team and help them plan out their tasks. You should be regularly gathering and responding to your employee’s plans, progress and problems in your written updates. You’ll need to run the staff meeting and clearly articulate the team’s goals and objectives.