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Why Do You Want to Be a Manager?

There are a lot of bad stereotypes associated with management — the TV show “The Office” illustrates many of the stereotypes on a weekly basis. But there are advantages to being in management, so I thought I would write a bit about management for those of you who are still in individual contributor roles. And for those of you in management roles, you can use this article to help you with career discussions you have with some of your employees.

Management Advantage 1: Scope
From my own experience the principal advantage of management is that you get to do bigger things. There are limits to how much you can do by yourself, and so by necessity you won’t be able to accomplish as much in an individual contributor position. Of course you can still be part of a team and contribute to a group goal (see my article “The Quest for a Quest” for more about this topic), but it feels different when you are in charge of a team and your team is able to accomplish something significant. Frankly, it feels wonderful.

Management Advantage 2: Control
The second advantage of management is control. This is a loaded word, and it can be used both positively and negatively. Let me first use the word in the positive sense: as a manager you have more control over some of the project decisions that need to be made. I won’t give you false hopes, though. As long as you report to someone else (e.g., a higher level manager, a director, the CEO, the Board of Directors, the stockholders), you never have complete control. But still, it’s generally true that you have more control the higher up you rise in the management structure.

Control means that you can envision a project result and actually make it come true. It means that you have fewer situations where you have to argue over small details — you just make a decision on the small details and then you don’t have to worry about them anymore.

Notice that I singled out the small details. That’s because you still have to deal with higher-level management to work out the broader issues. The higher you go in the management hierarchy, the fewer details you’re focused on, and the more you’re focused on broader issues.

Negative Aspects of Control
Now as long as I’m talking about control, let me talk about the negative aspects of control. First off, you’re kidding yourself if you think that being a manager means being some sort of dictatorial snob who tells everyone what to do. Barking orders at people might work in the military (and I’m not sure it even works well there), but it doesn’t work in most companies. When people are given orders without any explanation or motivation they tend to get annoyed. Annoyed employees fight back — both actively and passively — and the end result is that you end up failing as a manager.

So if you want to be a manager because you see it as some sort of power trip, then forget it. Wait a few years until you have a more mature attitude about management, or maybe you should leave your company and join the military (Good luck with that!).

A second negative aspect of control is accountability. Yes, you can determine the details, but you have to take responsibility for anything you decide. If you make a decision and it doesn’t work out, expect to incur the wrath of upper management. Make enough bad decisions, incur enough wrath, and you’ll be fired.

What this means is that there’s a cost to control, and that cost is the pressure you’ll feel to make the right decisions. Some people can’t deal with the pressure. They get upset, they neglect their families, and they have a lot of trouble coping with the ambiguity of decisions (most decisions aren’t black and white — they’re shades of gray). If pressure bothers you, don’t become a manager.

Key Management Skill: Working with People
It sounds obvious, but I’ll say it here anyway: Being a manager is about working with people. In a nutshell that’s what management is all about: getting results through other people.

Some people mistakenly believe that a management position in a technical specialty like IT is just another rung in the technical skills ladder. They see a job progression like “programmer, senior programmer, project leader, manager” or “analyst, senior analyst, project leader, manager” or [substitute your own list of titles with the last item being manager] and they think it means that as you get better at one job it’s natural to jump up to the next job.

What you need to understand is that while the scope of your job does in fact get bigger as you move through this progression, there is a change in the skills you need and the things you spend your time on. Lower level technical jobs require you to be good at the technology. Higher level jobs like project leader and manager require you to be good at dealing with people: bringing out people’s strengths, communicating with them and influencing them.

There’s a fundamental contradiction here that a lot of people can’t get their heads around. Being a manager means spending less time on technical stuff. If you really enjoy doing the technical stuff, don’t become a manager.

Conclusion
I’ll write more about management in upcoming articles, but for now let me just recap what I’ve told you. Most technical people who become managers do so because they want more scope and control. They in fact get that scope and control, but they get it only by leaving behind some of the detailed technical skills that they developed as individual contributors. But perhaps most important, you don’t become a good manager by being good technically — you become a good manager by being able to get things accomplished through other people. Management is a people skill — not a technical skill.

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