Susan’s Career Dilemma

May 25, 2010 by Wally Bock

A couple of years ago, Susan got promoted. Her boss made her a team leader. There would be a new title and more money. It looked great for about a day.

“Why do those people keep coming into my office and whining?” Susan asked, after her first day in the new job. “Why don’t they just do their work?”

Susan had learned an important lesson. Management was not for her. She was smart and creative and a hard, productive worker. But she didn’t have either the passion or the aptitude for management.

Her boss and her company let her return to being an individual contributor. She heaved a huge sigh of relief.

In most companies, she wouldn’t have been so fortunate. Most places she would have had to tough it out as best she could in a job she hated for the rest of her career.

Today Susan has another problem. She’s mastered everything in the job she has. She’s topped out on pay. There’s nothing else to learn and nowhere else to go. She’s stuck.

Here’s the choice she faces now. She can pull up her big-girl pants and go into management. She’ll hate the work, but she’ll have a career path.

Or, she can stay where she is. Then her career choice is to face a couple of decades of being bored out of her skull.

We can do better. We can offer alternative career paths to individual contributors like Susan, the way universities have for decades.

We should pop open the top of the pay and benefits box. Define some possibilities. We have the brainpower and computing power to do things differently.

Most people relish jobs where they’re learning and developing. When people are learning and growing, they generate some of that intrinsic motivation we’ve heard about. But they won’t just happen. We need to seek out opportunities and be open to the opportunities others, like Susan, see first.

We can modify some things that have worked elsewhere. Some companies let their engineers use 20 percent of their time to work on whatever they want. I’ve got news. Engineers aren’t the only creative creatures. Extend the benefit to other knowledge workers.

In the Knowledge Economy, long term competitive advantage grows out of people with their knowledge and relationships. We simply have to do a better job of creating career options for our individual contributors. Or we can watch them go elsewhere.

Wally Bock is a coach, a writer and President of Three Star Leadership.

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