While it’s tempting to measure career growth and success solely according to the number of rungs we scale on the corporate ladder, management isn’t the only path to a satisfying career. Being a manager comes with responsibilities that don’t appeal to everyone. Even worse, managerial work could take you away from the aspects of your job you love most.
But just because you don’t have any interest in presiding over a team doesn’t mean that you’re destined to stagnate—or that you have to grudgingly heave yourself up to the next level. In other words, you don’t always have to move upward to move onward.
We asked professionals who’ve blazed a trail off the management track to fill us in on four ways you can continue to evolve professionally—minus the supervisory duties.
1. Look for Opportunities That Offer In-Role Advancement
Not all growth involves taking a step up. Certain roles offer opportunities to stretch yourself within the same position, through a greater variety of projects, more prestigious assignments, deeper work, or more responsibility. When hunting for your next non-managerial job opportunity, consider point-blank asking about what growth looks like within the role rather than what’s beyond it.
While working as a media agency VP, Nathanael Yellis realized managing a team came with some emotional costs. Being on-call as a resource for his direct reports—as well as being beholden to his own manager’s schedule—took away from the time and energy he was able to spend with his family. So he set out to find an individual contributor role that still offered in-role growth.
Not having to make the emotional commitment to managing people frees emotional bandwidth I have at home.
Yellis ultimately found it within his current position as an Inbound Consultant for HubSpot. There, not only does he have more direct control over his time, but he can still develop his career without stepping up to a managerial role. “I have promotions available to me that come with increased status or customers who are more critical to HubSpot’s success,” he says. “As I continue to grow in the role, I’ll have the opportunity to work with larger companies in a wider variety of industries.”
Because he’s customer-facing, he’s able to establish clear boundaries for when and how he interacts with clients, such as deciding he isn’t available for conference calls between 5 and 8 PM. “Beyond that,” he says, “not having to make the emotional commitment to managing people frees emotional bandwidth I have at home.”
2. Make a Lateral Move Somewhere Bigger or More Prestigious
If you’re not interested in becoming a bigger fish in a small pond, consider bigger ponds, whether that means a larger company, a greater swath of sales territory, or a more prestigious brand. In the case of Danielle Radin, the digital correspondent for NBC San Diego, the puddle-to-lake leap meant a bigger broadcast market.
If you’re not interested in becoming a bigger fish in a small pond, consider bigger ponds.
While Radin had a master’s degree that primed her for the managerial track, she found that she liked being a reporter, and didn’t want to deal with the office politics that came with managing others in the newsroom. Instead of hopping up the ladder, she’s been hopping to larger markets. “In broadcast the goal is to move up to bigger markets, which are ranked by population from 1 all the way down to 209,” she explains. “I started in one of the lowest-ranked markets, 195, and was able to jump to San Diego, ranked 28.”
Of course, few fields offer quite the concrete ranking system by which to measure your growth, but other indicators, both quantitative (think: company size and potential number of clients) and qualitative (think: influence or reputation) can be your guide when you’re looking to make a lateral move.
3. Go Solo as a Consultant
Once you become an expert in your field, you can deploy your skills and experience in a consulting role. That’s what Stacy Caprio, founder of Accelerated Growth Marketing, an SEO/SEM consulting company, did.
Caprio previously worked as the search marketing manager for a finance company, but didn’t like the idea of having to be responsible for anyone else’s work but her own. She tested the waters by consulting as a side hustle and eventually made it her full-time career. When you go it alone, you can chart your own career growth with the same metrics you use to measure your consulting business’ success, such as reach and revenue.
I like that it has given me the opportunity to learn so much and be hands on in what I do.
Though the freedom of consulting is a huge perk in itself, Caprio says it’s also been more financially lucrative than her previous position. “I like that it has given me the opportunity to learn so much and be hands on in what I do, instead of just a supervisor who has no idea what her employees are doing,” she says. “It has also allowed me to make a lot more than I would have been able to make in a managerial role.”
4. Deepen or Broaden Your Skill Set to Become an Expert
If you’re not devoting time and energy to cultivating managerial skills, you can focus on honing other skills, whether that means perfecting your sales pitch, becoming a financial-modeling wizard, or mastering every project management tool under the sun.
In addition to having the tangible metric of market size by which to gauge her growth, Radin says her non-management path has given her the opportunity to improve her writing, editing, shooting, and presenting abilities on a daily basis. “Find a niche in your job that you truly thrive in, and improve it as much as you can so that you are considered one of the top in that skill set,” she advises.
Find a niche in your job that you truly thrive in, and improve it as much as you can so that you are considered one of the top in that skill set.
While a deeper skill set is satisfying in and of itself, you can also establish a few key performance indicators to assess growth more objectively. Alex Tran, a digital marketing specialist, opted out of management to focus on the more hands-on aspects of her career. Instead of measuring her performance according to how close she’s getting to a head-honcho title, she uses other metrics relevant to her industry.
“In marketing I am measuring our brand visibility and reputation. If we are getting more leads than we can handle, that is great,” she says. “That means we will need to expand and hire more, which is what every growing organization wants. I am a grower, not a leader.”
Stepping outside of management may give you a chance to expand your skills outward as well. When Caprio made her move to consulting, she found that she was able to extend her expertise beyond the parameters of her in-house role. In those 9-to-5 jobs she held, “my focus was 70% running paid Google and Facebook ads,” she explains. “Once I was consulting full-time, I really dove into more than just theoretical SEO, which enabled me to develop a new skill set driving more unpaid traffic to sites.” she adds. “I used this to further expand into buying my own sites and growing them, so one thing led to another.”