"As organizational leaders identify and train potential managers in their organizations, they must also, in parallel, create a viable career path for people who are excellent individual contributors and have mastered essential skills," writes Robert Glazer. Accelerated Partners

Every business leader wants an edge to help develop talent faster and with a higher success rate. But despite these innovative efforts, career paths at most organizations look similar: An employee starts at an entry level job working on a team, advances to manage their own projects, then eventually is promoted to lead a team of their own.

In fact, most organizations have an explicit or unstated norm that becoming a manager or team leader is the only way to advance up the organizational chart or gain higher levels of compensation. To reach the highest level of seniority in an organization, an employee may even need to lead a full department, with dozens, or hundreds, of people under their leadership.

This path doesn't suit everyone, however. While a key responsibility of a leader is to identify and develop new leaders, it's also crucial to ensure the people identified for leadership roles actually want to lead. Any leader who fails to do this puts their organization's health in jeopardy.

As organizational leaders identify and train potential managers in their organizations, they must also, in parallel, create a viable career path for people who are excellent individual contributors and have mastered essential skills.

Companies should develop a separate but equally rewarding path for people to advance in their careers by becoming high-level individual contributors. Here's why:

Management is a unique skill

Management is not for everyone. Many individual contributors are truly excellent at what they do but don't have the desire or skill set to be a leader. After all, managers are evaluated on the success of their team, and many of the best individual contributors are primarily motivated by their own contributions. There's a big difference between being rewarded on your own performance and rewarded based on your team's output, and not everyone enjoys or excels at the latter.

The business world is littered with cases of companies promoting brilliant salespeople, marketers, engineers or other individual contributors into roles where they need to lead, only to see poor outcomes for everyone involved.

While it seems like a natural career progression, transitioning a person into a management role is asking them to do an entirely different type of job. A person can be talented, hard-working and have a great attitude, but may not have the talent or temperament to lead.

For example, imagine a gifted salesperson whom we'll call Jane. Jane always smashes her targets and sets the gold standard for sales at the company. As a leader, it's natural to want Jane to elevate into a sales leadership role. After all, if Jane can coach a team to hit the same marks that she does, her exemplary performance becomes scalable. As great as Jane is, a team of Janes is even better, in theory.

But most business leaders know theory gets you only so far when the rubber hits the road. As it turns out, Jane actually has no interest in managing people. She hates one-on-one check-ins with direct reports. She hates having to hold people accountable for missing targets. Most importantly, whenever she coaches a salesperson for a pitch, she feels crushed that she can't just do the pitch herself and often steps in to save the day.

You probably see where this is going: Jane is not meant to manage. She's a more natural fit as an individual contributor. Instead of promoting her into a leadership role, the better option for someone like Jane is to give them a big sales quota with a high upside commission plan.

Every organization has people like Jane. And even though not everyone wants to manage a team--and even fewer people have both the will and the capacity to lead--so many people take on leadership roles because they believe it's the only way to advance.

If a person is a gifted performer as an individual contributor--a star salesperson, a brilliant copywriter, a financial wizard or an outstanding engineer--the responsibility is on you as a leader to find the best way to put them on a path that maximizes their talent and increases their responsibility and compensation. They should not feel pressured to shift info a leadership position that could set them up to fail.

Bad management is damaging

A common saying tells us that people leave managers, not careers. And the stats back this up: Gallup found that 70% of variance of employee engagement within an organization is due to the team's manager. A great CEO can set the culture for a strong business, but they can do only so much for employees' day-to-day work. Making that daily grind more fulfilling falls to managers.

Companies cannot afford to have managers who don't want to manage, aren't invested in their teams or simply don't have the right skills to lead. There is nothing that will drive other great employees to the doors any faster.

This problem also grows more acute as companies grow. Early in Acceleration Partners' growth, back when we had fewer than 20 people, I had close relationships with nearly every employee. Our culture was easy for me to maintain as a CEO. But today, as chairman of the board of a company with more than 300 people, I interact only with our full team on rare occasions. It falls to our managers to ensure our culture is strong and our performance is consistent. We are diligent about manager selection and training because, at our size, we need to be.

Don't make management the default path for your talented, tenured employees. Otherwise, you'll set many of those gifted employees up to fail--and harm the people they lead as well.

Great leaders put people in the right seats

At our company, we always say that an A player is the right person, in the right seat, at the right time. That means being candid with people who aren't ideal managers, giving them tips to improve, and giving them a chance to grow without leading their own teams.

Putting strong individual contributors who don't want to manage into manager roles is a no-win scenario--the individual contributor gets stuck with a manager role they don't enjoy, their direct reports aren't managed well, and the company loses the individual contributor's output and adds a subpar manager to their ranks. And few things can hurt a company's retention rates more than bad management.

There are a few ways to build a better path for individual contributors in your organization.

  • Create "senior" individual contributor roles. While the head of a department usually manages a team, many departments also need exceptional individual contributors who want to improve at their craft. An exceptional accountant, salesperson, product manager, engineer or demand generation specialist should be able to advance in their discipline and earn raises without having to take on managing a team.
  • Focus on outcomes. An individual contributor's daily workload and responsibilities look very different from those of a manager. Often, individual contributors have fewer meetings and more opportunities for deep, focused work. As a result, individual contributors should be held accountable for clear outcomes that are tied to the company's bottom line--or at least to their department's most important metrics.
  • Compensate individual contributors fairly. The reason many people who don't want to manage end up as managers is simple economics--the highest rungs of the organizational ladder are occupied by managers, and those levels are where the money often is. This is why organizations should align pay for individual contributors to the output they deliver for the organization. A brilliant engineer, a top salesperson, a recruiter who constantly brings in top talent, or a client retention specialist who rarely loses a client might actually create more value for an organization than a manager.

For individual contributors, determine what their contribution is worth to the organization and pay them accordingly, no managerial duties required.

These steps create a viable path for individual contributors to continue to grow. In addition to these steps, it's also a good idea to give new managers a rip cord they can pull if and when they realize that management was not the right choice, which happens regularly.

As a leader, it's on you to put your talented people in the best position. Leaders who make it clear to their top performers that it's okay to decide management is not for them, and redirect them to an attractive individual contributor growth path, ensure their culture stays strong even during rapid growth.

(Robert Glazer is founder and chairman of the board of Accelerated Partners. He is the author of several books; the latest one is "Elevate Your Team: Empower Your Team To Reach Their Full Potential and Build A Business That Builds Leaders.")