If Management is the Only Way Up, We’re All F’d

Geraldine used to love her job at Cranium (the board game startup in Seattle, prior to the Hasbro acquisition & layoffs). She wrote questions for the board games, and copy for the boxes and marketing materials. She was good at it. But, something weird happened – they tried to promote her. I remember her coming home at night and fretting endlessly. She didn’t want people reporting to her. She didn’t want greater responsibility for a team. She wanted to write.

It’s weird. When we look at the structure of a company, it’s easy to see that what’s needed are a lot of high quality individual contributors to teams and a small number of high quality people wranglers to manage them. And yet, somehow, our corporate culture and the world of “business” has created the expectation that unless you manage people, your influence, salary, benefits, title, and self-worth won’t increase.

I’m calling BS.

In the past, I’ve written about the importance of having multiple tracks for progress – ICs and people wranglers – but we’ve been spending a lot more time bouncing ideas around at Moz lately, and are soon to be implementing a new title/team structure that finally puts this into practice. I’m excited for that.

I worry today when an individual contributor is great at their job and expresses an interest in people management. I worry that some significant portion of that expressed desire doesn’t come from a true passion for the responsibilities of people managing, but instead exists because they want to level up their career and/or influence and believe this to be the only path.

I made this diagram to help illustrate the differences between the two types of roles:

(larger version)

Individual contributors have responsibility for themselves and their work. As they get more senior on an IC track, their influence becomes more wide-ranging. A good example of this at Moz is someone like Dr. Pete, who recognizes strategic imperatives at the company and pitches in. He assists engineering and big data with reviews, assists marketing with tactical advice and strategic input, publishes incredibly high quality blog posts and guides, and even designs entire projects from the ground up and executes on their creation. His influence is company-wide, cross-team, and as senior as they come. He lets his influence define his role, rather than the other way around.

On the flip side, great people wranglers are responsible for their team’s happiness, cohesion, empowerment, reviews, mentoring, and more. The more senior they get, the less “in-the-trenches” they should be. Many times, they touch on strategy only to help define the strategic problems. These are then passed to ICs who help define scope, research possible answers, and execute on their implementation. A good example of this at Moz is Samantha Britney. She was an IC for a long time, but has moved into people wrangling and today helps several ICs on the product team feel empowered about their work, get the tools/resources/help they need to do it well, and provides the mentoring/1:1s/reviews/HR functions a good people wrangler should. She’s almost never in the gritty details of her reports, but always there to help them drive their projects forward.

Basically, if you love getting stuff done and doing a great job at it, you should be an IC. If you love empowering others, and helping them grow and succeed (and you’re great at it), you should be a people wrangler.

There’s some nuance to all of this IC (Individual Contributor) vs. PW (People Wrangler) stuff:

  • As ICs get more senior, they tend to have more overlap with some PW responsibilities. The reverse is true for PWs – as they get more senior, they get to do less and less of the real work.
  • Senior ICs also have more flexibility with their roles – they can often do that work from anywhere, and, thanks to the recognition that work receives, see more conference/event invitations come their way. Senior PWs are the opposite – their time is more critical in the office, so travel is harder, and they’re usually more behind-the-scenes (CEOs being a notable exception to that rule).
  • If you have lots of ICs and only a few PWs, you may find challenges with reporting and management. But, if you have lots of PWs and not many ICs, you encounter the horrifying “too many chefs, not enough kitchen staff” problem (and it usually means your culture and organization have gotten seriously messed up)
  • Great ICs are sometimes promoted to PWs and turn out to be mediocre or worse at that role. This sucks horribly. Not only have you lost an excellent contributor to the company, you’ve put in place bad management, which creates a massively more viral spread of problems. On the flip side, if an IC is underperforming in their role, the impact is not nearly so problematic.
  • Compensation is tricky. In my ideal world (and in the salary ranges we’re building across the tracks at Moz), the levels are roughly equivalent for both PWs and ICs. Assuming you had 7 levels on each track, level 3 ICs would make what level 3 PWs do. The highest level ICs should be able to make what the C-suite earns.

Much of this seems intuitive when I share it with folks (internally and externally). The biggest question I’ve gotten  relates to a single concept – the ownership of strategy and tactics. A fellow Mozzer and I were disagreeing about this just the other day. This person expressed that historically at Moz, some of the teams have had both strategy and tactics owned by the people wranglers. ICs didn’t define what they do, how they do it, how to measure, and the process for execution, they took orders.

It’s true that this can work and has worked. But I disagreed with my colleague that it works as well as if we give ICs greater ownership over the what, when, where, and how, and have PWs own only the who and the why. Granted, more junior managers will have greater overlap with ICs and more senior ICs might even take over the who and why (as noted above). But I believe strongly that long term, we have to go this route. People’s happiness depends on it.

When Daniel Pink asked “What Makes Us Happy at Work?” the answers were clear (and are backed up by lots of other researchers and less-formal investigators of the topic):

1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.

2. Mastery— the urge to get better and better at something that matters.

3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

If ICs don’t control their own work lives and have the ability to attain mastery, we’re going to lose the good ones to companies where they have those opportunities. We will retain only the PWs, and probably not for long.

Weirdly enough, I’m kind of an IC-style CEO (perhaps that’s not all that weird). I’m a high level IC, so I have more overlap with PW responsibilities, but my reports all own their teams, jobs, and details. I’m probably most directly involved in product and marketing, and with both of those, I often tell Mozzers working on those teams to treat me as a resource and a tool. You tell me to blog about something and I’ll do it. You ask me to reply to a customer and I’m on it. You need to chat about how a project fits in with the broader goals and how that might change how you do it, let’s get together. I love feeling like I report to Moz’s employees – not the other way around. I think it will always be that way.

p.s. I really liked this blog post from Phil Scarr describing his experience moving from a people wrangler to an IC and why he loves it. I was really proud of Carin, who people-wrangled our big data team, and has just moved to a senior IC role on the product team – way to go!

p.p.s. If I’m way off track (or way on track) with this stuff and you’ve experienced it before, I’d LOVE to hear from you in the comments. I can use all the help I can get – as I constantly remind my team, I’m a first-time CEO 🙂