What Your Career Path Says About Your Ambition

As we discussed in a recent blog on self-leadership, there are important milestones in your professional development that will arise as you strive to accelerate and accentuate your leadership competencies.  I am using the term leadership in a very generic sense, not implying any formal role, title or authority, but rather an elevated presence highlighted by intelligence, actions and behavior that inspires others to seek you out.  Essentially, at various times in your career you will come to a crossroads, and whether by intention, guidance or luck, you might choose to go in one direction over another.

To me this feels a lot like the popular board game Life by Milton Bradley – with all the different paths to follow: 

  1. You might go to college to get a degree or choose a more experiential form of education;
  2. You might work for an established company in a stable industry versus a start-up in an emerging market;
  3. You may or may not get promoted to Management; or
  4. You might retire early if you develop an idea that gets sold to Google for $1B.

Let’s focus on what’s behind door #3. Imagine if instead of viewing the choice between management and non-management as the difference between the yellow brick road versus a dead end, we shifted our mindset to view both options as being on parallel tracks with similar opportunity, interest, and value (to self and to employer)? And what if there was no wrong choice, so long as you picked the path that best suited your skills and motivators?

Ambition

Before we cross that bridge, let’s answer this question candidly.  “Do you consider yourself to be ambitious - having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed?”  Let’s take that a step further. “Do you believe being ambitious also implies, in the professional arena, that the best way to demonstrate your ambition is to propel yourself ahead of others and become part of a managerial hierarchy that requires you to oversee the work of others?” Conversely, “do you believe that those who don’t go into management might be any less ambitious?”

To me, this way of thinking distorts the virtuous side of ambition. Let’s dispel the notion that ambition is merely an outward form of expression that proves to others that you have arrived. Instead, let’s focus on the idea that when ambition is tied to one’s personal drive and not merely external motivators, then the correlation between the career path you choose and the degree of ambition that signifies is up to you.

Author Daniel Pink, in his highly acclaimed book Drive, speaks about these intrinsic motivating factors as autonomy, mastery and purpose.  In a nutshell, if you have the opportunity to explore, develop, and hone your skills and feel valued for your contributions, then external motivators like money and title alone mean less. It boils down to what you do.

To Manage or Not to Manage

I believe that many of us have opportunities to work in a field that truly interests us. It then becomes a matter of what your specific role is that allows you to align what truly motivates you with your professional goals.  As an ambitious professional, once you have developed a respectable level of competence in your work, you are likely ready for a new challenge. However, in many companies going into management is promoted as the only viable option as there are no formal alternatives to management. Assuming you meet the criteria, your coronation to management reduces or eliminates the responsibility of doing the work and replaces it with the requirement for overseeing others who do the work.  This path makes a big assumption: those who oversee, won’t miss doing.  A promotion to management isn’t necessarily viewed by everyone as the golden parachute to getting out of doing the work. Many enjoy building, coding, testing, writing, selling, operating, and so on. (By the same token, there are people who enjoy the administrative, operational and personnel aspects of management.)

Going the management route should be your individual decision (assuming you meet the criteria) and not a foregone conclusion that it’s the only way to progress your career and validate your ambitions.  HR, in conjunction with executive leadership and senior management, should be developing and promoting the management and the non-management tracks with clearly defined competencies and responsibilities at various levels, as well as providing coaching and reinforcement.  Both paths are essential for the success of the company. Quite frankly, there isn’t a need for everyone to be a manager from a strictly numbers standpoint, and companies need to think strategically about how to retain their top talent.

Cultural Norms

I remember when I first got married. Everyone assumed our obvious (and immediate) next step would be to start a family. I believe that attitude is analogous to how people view management as the logical next phase after serving as an individual contributor. To overcome this attitude, which is pervasive in our corporate culture, that links ambition with management, we need you – individual contributors, peers, and management – to transform your mindset and endorse the path that is right for you.

For some, management will be a valid option and you will succeed and be satisfied. Others may not succeed, and hopefully a growing number of others may opt for a different path that affirms your interests, drive and purpose. It takes a self-assured individual to not succumb to the pressures and judgments of others who might say you lack ambition if you don’t go for management. It takes an emotionally intelligent person to discern what drives them.  You need to know yourself, your options and alternatives.

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