I have managed IT technicians, programmers, and support personnel for more than a decade. I like where I work and I have been here long enough to be considered for promotion. I know that a higher-level management position will be opening up, and I am considering applying for it. I think I would have a good shot at it, but I am not sure I want the job. It pays more, but I’d be less involved with managing people (which I like) and more involved with politics and managing projects (which I really don’t like). How can I decide what to do?
It’s a shame that in U.S. business, good performers are often rewarded by promotions that take them further and further away from the work they like and do well. That’s one of the central observations behind the ”Peter Principle,“ a management axiom coined decades ago by Laurence J. Peter. He said that the more promotions people receive, the further they move from their core competencies. Taken to its logical extreme, he reasoned, eventually the upper levels of management in a company must be occupied by ineffectual people.
What Peter didn’t take into account is that companies can change—they may not like change, they may not be good at it—but they can change. Peter was also writing in an era when most people got a job out of college and stayed at the same company for decades, if not their entire careers. Thus, he didn’t factor in what happens when managers leave and other managers take their place. With more churn in the management ranks, stagnation is less likely to occur.
Nonetheless, the Peter Principle is still in effect at many companies. So your first step is to take a really hard look at the company you work for now and be honest with your evaluation. Do you see any evidence of incompetence in the upper ranks? Are there any telltale indicators of calcification, such as the fact that nothing important ever changes or that the senior executives are always in meetings? Are politics more important than people?
If you see any of these serious warning flags, then you should certainly think twice before moving to join senior management.
Avoid being labeled a “problem”
Declining to advance doesn’t necessarily mean you have to leave the company; you just have to hesitate about taking a step forward until you see signs of life in top management.
If you have been in your current role for a few years, you do not have to worry about senior level executives wondering why you haven’t jumped at a possible promotion or asked about it. But if you have been doing the same thing for years and years while other less senior managers have moved up, then you might have cause for concern.
In many companies, senior management will withhold promotions in an effort to get rid of troublesome employees who haven’t done anything overt enough to get fired. With such employees, bosses withhold larger raises and perks, as well as promotions, hoping that the employee will get the message and move along to become some other company’s problem.
In these kinds of companies, other employees then start to view longer-term employees who are not promoted on a regular basis in a different manner. The unspoken assumption is that something must be wrong with the employee; otherwise, the employee would have been promoted by now. That’s the risk you run if you haven’t been promoted in a few years. You may even start to wonder yourself what the problem is if you have tried for a promotion or two and haven’t gotten them.
If you don’t ask for a promotion when opportunities arise, you may also run the risk that senior management will conclude that you are not ambitious or that you are unhappy with the company in some way. Senior management often assumes, incorrectly, that the lure of increased money and more power motivates everyone in the same way.
Stay where you are, but prepare for the inevitable
My recommendation is this: if you are comfortable where you are in the management hierarchy right now, then don’t try for the promotion. If you are concerned about appearances, talk with your boss and express your concerns. Don’t tell your boss that you don’t want the promotion because of the politics. Tell your boss that you feel you are most effective today in your current position. Make sure to leave the door open to advancement if and when the right opportunity arises within the company.
Eventually, though, if you stay in IT management, you will have to take the next step and move up. So start now to prepare yourself by taking some courses or reading books about the positive roles that senior IT managers can play in well-run companies. Don’t forget that, in senior management, you will be managing managers, but they’re people too! You might also like to take on the role of mentor or motivator, which is often part of a senior IT manager’s job.