Should you be a manager?

I recently enjoyed a conversation with our 2012 eBay interns. We discussed careers, leadership, business, and engineering. Someone asked me about career path: should I follow the manager or individual contributor path? It’s a great question.

The answer is it depends on what you’re passionate about, and ultimately that’ll be key in determining whether you’re good at it. Here’s my litmus test for the manager career track:

  • Are you passionate about leading people? If not, don’t become a manager. If yes, you need to develop people management skills: from growing people and helping them succeed, to delivering tough messages and handling challenging personal circumstances. You’ll need to spend much of your time working with people
  • Is having impact through others rewarding to you? If yes, that means you feel reward when your team hits its goals, the people around you solve problems, and your employees work together as team. If not, you’re someone who highly values personally contributing ideas, solving problems, or creating output (such as writing code)

There’s no right or wrong answer, and it isn’t black or white. You can be a good manager who still contributes personally, but realize its more about others than you. You can be a great individual contributor who’s passionate about helping others succeed; indeed, that’s a prerequisite of a senior individual contributor. But at the core, management is about leading others and being accountable for a team, and succeeding or failing based on their contribution.

7 thoughts on “Should you be a manager?

  1. Benjamin Selby-Hele

    Like your thoughts Hugh. I think there is nothing more satisfying than leading people, particularly when the desired outcomes are achieved. However, there is a lot to be said for manager’s leadership skills when faced with adversity. I’d be interested to hear your insight and tips for helping your team overcome challenges they face individually and as a team?

  2. Ian

    Great thoughts, Hugh, and they are on my mind a lot. Now take your thinking here and turn it around for a Peter Principle victim – a great individual contributor moved into management. How does that require you to change your thinking? How do you make leading people feel like those earlier [technical] contributions?

  3. Ilari Henrik Aegerter

    Fully agree with you, Hugh. I very much like that you mention the importance of passion for leading people. Furthermore, I would add that a good manager needs a distinguished sense of the difference between role power and relationship power, whereby using the latter far more often than the former. In my opinion, being well grounded and knowing your own strengths and weaknesses helps in achieving a good balance.

  4. sikhstride

    You always simplify things :), and honestly I like this a lot. Its a great answer.
    However, how does one go through the transition phase of moving into manager’s role ? He/She will definitely face problems, hurdles, lot of times might fail on certain occasions. Should he/she think over the career path again ?
    I feel sometimes it is difficult to be clear whether you like manager’s shoes or individual shoes ? Which one you might enjoy, you don’t know ?
    Any thoughts ??

  5. Andrew Purtell

    Often it is not a question of if one should be a manager, but how to handle being forced into a management track. I can’t say how common this is but I hear about it often anecdotally. If you are good (and getting older) you’ll be moved into a leadership position or you’ll simply be moved out. Some companies differentiate between technical leadership and people managers, some do not. I wonder if you have any advice for someone who highly values personally solving problems by developing architecture and writing code but who also must take on people management tasks? I find the problems of time management are about doubled.

  6. cutecoder

    One of the big problems in today’s industry is that individual contributor’s career path tend to hit the glass ceilling faster. Especially when you measure it financially.

  7. learnactshare - Pete Ferguson

    Reblogged this on learnactshare and commented:
    Often because someone is good at something, the first inclination is to promote them and put them in charge of more people.
    This can be a big mistake if the person is not an inclined leader as it sets them up for failure and in front of a larger audience than when they were an individual contributor.
    What makes a great leader? Someone who is willing to put a group’s development first and find each person’s motivation and weaknesses and work on plans for both at the same time in my experience.
    What are your thoughts on leadership?

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