Growing But Not Leading

There is a common theme among many companies that have great subject matter experts. Most of these companies think that the person in a specific role is doing such a great job that the person should be promoted to a manager. Most of these subject matter experts don’t want to be a manager, of people. These are the people that are happy to manage a project to the penny but not deal with “people issues.”

The dilemma for the subject matter expert is how to continue to grow and learn but not take on all the duties of managing a team of people. I recently read an HBR blog post by Anne Kreamer. She notes that she was one of those people that loved the hands-on work but found herself buried in managerial tasks such as budgeting and supervising people. She was no longer working in her personal sweet spot and felt disconnected from her own motivation. She sites where Daniel Pink has identified three primary motivators for behavior: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Anne goes on to ask why do companies reward success on the job with a promotion out of the job (the person loves) into management? Unfortunately I think this phenomenon will continue, its just natural to think if someone is so awesome in their specific area, of course they want to move into management. But what if you just don’t want to? Will you be committing political suicide if you turn down the promotion OR is there a way for you to get what you want and still learn and grow? After all just because we are an expert in one area doesn’t mean we don’t want to continue to learn and stretch ourselves.

Anne recommends a few things you can do:

  • Stay at your current company and forge a new path
  • Find another company that shares your values
  • Strike out on your own

Reality is if you are one of the subject matter experts and you don’t want to move up, you are not alone. There are a lot of people that just don’t want the headache and/or responsibility of managing people. I don’ t think you need to worry about not taking a promotion if you don’t want it. Sit down with your boss and tell them why, then come up with perhaps some other areas you can help the company in your current role or another capacity.

You can go out and find another company to share your talent with but you want to make sure that your boss knows you really like working as a subject matter expert and while you are happy to learn and grow you just don’ t want to move up; it’s becoming more and more acceptable.

If you decide to strike out on your own you can certainly work in the area that makes you happy. But before you hang out your shingle, do a little research on how you plan to get the work. You will still need to sell yourself and if sales don’t come to you naturally you may want to pair up with another self employed colleague.

It’s no mystery that whether you want to stay a subject matter expert or you want to move up into management, you’ll need to continue to develop your expertise and skill set. After all if you aren’t learning, you aren’t growing.

One thought on “Growing But Not Leading

  1. Vicki,

    Excellent article! I have seem many happy SME’s promoted to managerial roles, only to find themselves overwhelmed with managing instead of doing what they love. Sound advice on the options to consider. I would only add a recommendation of seeking out a competent mentor or coach who can help them understand how to get to where they want to be and walk with them through the transition.


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