My first job after college was working for Hewlett-Packard in Corvallis, Oregon. I spent a year as a product manager, and then transferred to the Lab to work as a software engineer. While in the Lab, I took note of a very unusual promotions policy that was unique to engineering. HP had a “two-track” promotions system, where engineers could take the conventional path and advance through the ranks by taking on management responsibilities. However, for engineers who were much more comfortable as individual contributors, didn’t want to deal with supervisory duties, or got promoted to a management position that they weren’t suited for, HP established a parallel promotion path. Engineers could choose to remain individual contributors, but get more senior titles and more money based on their performance.
At the time, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to take this path. I’d just graduated from an MBA program and thought that I should already be running the company. Why wouldn’t someone want more power and influence?
It took me a long time to figure it out, but after many years observing what really goes on in all kinds and sizes of businesses, I finally got it. There are a lot of excellent people who don’t have the temperament, desire or skill to manage others. They’re superb at what they were originally hired to do (i.e., engineering, sales, accounting, etc.), but for them to get promoted, they have to take on supervisory tasks that they don’t want or can’t handle.
How many of us know salespeople who were superb in the field, and then got promoted to sales manager and mismanaged their sales teams? Their employers lost two ways: First, they took one of their best salespeople away from selling, and second, they increased tension and lowered close rates for their other salespeople.
Why can’t a superb engineer stay an engineer? Why can’t a great salesperson keep on selling? Two of my uncles are examples of how this can work. My uncle Ben was considered to be the world’s greatest insurance salesman during his lifetime (Chairman Emeritus of the Million Dollar Roundtable, etc.) He worked for New York Life in a little town in Ohio, and for years his managers at headquarters wanted him to become a manager and supervise much, if not all, of the sales force. He always turned them down. He loved nothing more than to call on customers and sell them life insurance. He was an incredibly successful individual contributor. At the end of the day, New York Life would probably have hurt itself by promoting Ben to headquarters, and Ben knew it. He stayed a field agent until the day he died.
My Uncle Abe joined the Navy during WWII. He decided to make the Navy his career, and stayed for almost 30 years. He got promoted to Chief Petty Officer, one of the highest non-commissioned positions in the Navy. For years, time after time, Abe was offered promotions to commissioned rank, and time after time, he turned them down. He was perfectly happy as a CPO, and by his retirement, he was one of the most experienced CPOs in the Navy.
Looking back at my time with HP, I probably would have been happier on a non-management track, at least until I learned the people skills, patience and even-handedness that are hallmarks of good supervisors. A lot of people would appreciate and benefit from the option of moving up without moving into management, and a lot of companies would retain more people doing a better job.
There’s a lot of companies (and organizations) that would benefit from a two-track promotion system. You may be working for one. Declining a promotion to supervisory management shouldn’t be career suicide. Think about it the next time you get offered a promotion or look for a new job.