When you visualise your career, how do you see yourself?
Perhaps you are working at a large company, heading up a team and reporting to senior management. Or maybe you see yourself working autonomously, in a fiercely independent way, while levelling up your technical skills.
Truth is, some of us are not suited to or don’t aspire to management roles.
While a University of Sydney study showed that six in ten (60%) working women aged under 40 years agreed that they had a strong desire to advance their career, a US study showed that only a third (34%) of workers want to step into leadership roles.
Fortunately, it is possible to advance in your career without moving into management and leading a team.
Here’s how it can be done.
Be proactive in seeking non-management roles
Career coach Denise Mooney said it’s important to recognise your strengths and be honest with yourself about what you want from your career.
“A lot of people internalise other people’s idea of success, and that often includes stepping into a management role. But you don’t always need to be a manager to grow and develop in your career,” she said.
“Many organisations don’t just need good managers – they need experts in niche areas, and they need people with in-depth knowledge,” she said.
Mooney said there may be other pathways available to employees who want to progress at work without stepping into a management role, but she said they have to be proactive in seeking out those opportunities.
It’s important to have a good relationship with your manager where you can have a candid conversation about wanting to advance, Mooney said.
“Most good managers want you to succeed because that makes them look good, so it’s important to have that talk with them. Perhaps the organisation could create a new role for you, or come up with a project, or some other way for you to progress without having that leadership responsibility,” she said.
Mooney said it can be helpful to think about your personal brand and what you want to project about yourself in the workplace.
“If you’re a person that is always learning or growing in your role, or if you’re increasing your skill in a certain area, if you’re growth-oriented, then you’re going to become known for that,” she said.
“It’s about having the courage to follow your own path and not worry about those expectations of others.”
Become a specialist instead of a manager
Australian illustrator Ellen Porteus has successfully advanced in her career without moving into a management role.
She spent several years working as a graphic designer before specialising as an illustrator and eventually becoming self-employed.
She now mostly works on her own and is represented by a creative agency who helps her to secure projects, allowing her to focus on her craft.
Porteus said she was always intentional in her career about being a creative producer and refining her skills, rather than managing a team.
“I’ve always been interested in doing the creative work. That’s what I’m good at, that’s what I enjoy doing, and that’s what I’m passionate about,” she said.
“I’m an artist at heart, so I don’t have that drive to be a creative director or an art director telling other people what to do.”
Although Porteus left her employed job to become a full-time freelance illustrator, she admits she wasn’t sure what that career path was going to look like when she made that decision.
“As I’ve worked through my career, I’ve been open minded about what I am enjoying and what I’m not enjoying. But as I’ve gone along, what I really enjoy is being an artist,” she said.
“Right now, I can see myself continuing to be an artist and getting bigger and more interesting work, and being more experimental.”
In avoiding moving into management, Porteus said she focused on becoming a specialist in her field. She has found her niche in illustration and built a reputation for creating a distinct style of art.
“I have been able to carve out a little niche for myself which is fantastic because I feel that I have my own space that I exist in, and I’m not competing with other people because I’m just myself and this is my style. So, it’s quite liberating in a way. In the last couple of years, I’ve really realised that, and I’ve been leaning into that more.”
Define what career advancement means to you
Katea Gidley, managing director of career coaching business Career Ahead, said it is possible to advance in your career without stepping into a management role, but it will depend on what your definition of ‘advance’ is.
“Often, for women who have had their careers broken by family responsibilities, it’s about getting back into the opportunity to have meaningful work,” she said.
For these women, Gidley said it could mean moving away from menial tasks within their skillset and working on more interesting projects. Therefore, their accountability expands in terms of the nature of the work they do – and that doesn’t mean moving into a management role, but rather focusing on the quality of the projects and the scale of the projects they’re working on.
For women looking to define what career success means to them, Gidley said they can start by asking themselves “values-driven” questions.
“Ask yourself: what’s important for me? Think about that, in terms of the type of work you’re doing, the kind of accountability you’ll have, the nature of working in arrangements that you want, the remuneration that you want to achieve. The answers will fall out of those questions,” she said.
For women seeking career progression in traditional, hierarchical roles, the answers to these questions could mean they’re prepared to work full-time, they’ll do extensive hours, money is important to them, and they want a broad span of control.
But Gidley recommends also looking for the social purpose in the work you’re doing.
For example, are you interested in the environment or educating underprivileged individuals? Do you want to work close to home? Do you want to work with like-minded people? Do you value flexibility? Asking yourself these broader questions will help you to define what career progression looks like for you.
“That’s really how you find out what’s important to you, and therefore how you can be as successful as possible within those value judgements that you make about your own career,” Gidley said.
Actionable tips to advance in your career
For those looking to advance in their career without following a management pathway, try these actionable steps:
- Do your research. Career planning involves a lot of discovery and research. “Deliberately enter a phase of research. Speak to as many people as you can who’ve got experience or knowledge of an organisation’s roles and sectors, and from that you can then define the opportunities that you’re prepared to go into. Then you can ask: what do I now do about my own personal development to make for a strong candidate? What is it that I can bring to the organisation where I can create value?” Gidley said.
- Find a good mentor. For those seeking career progression, the best way to learn is from someone who has already been there. “Find a good mentor, and not necessarily someone you know well or who likes you, because a good mentor will challenge you and push you and hold you accountable. Having an external perspective is really important,” Gidley said.
- Hone your skills. The more skilled you become at something, the more valuable you become and that increases your ability to work on bigger and better projects, Gidley said. “And that goes back to that idea that career progression comes through the nature of the work, not the status in the organisation,” she said.
- Seek organisations that value technical skill. Gidley said traditional organisations are designed in a hierarchy where value has been placed on managerial responsibility as opposed to technical responsibility. But this is changing, especially in modern organisations. “If I look at start-up organisations and entrepreneurial leaders, they’re starting to bring in people for the value they can create based on their unique skillset,” she said.
HAVE YOUR SAY: Have you progressed in your career without becoming a manager? How did you do it? Share your tips in the comments section below.