How to Plan for a Future in Management

When you start out a career in sales, you hear about how you should go from being a junior something to a senior something and then a manager. Then you’re supposed to become a director and later a VP.

However, you don’t actually have to follow that preordained path. In my career, I’ve learned that management isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. In order to succeed in management, you need to carefully evaluate whether it’s the right path for you and develop the skills you need to be a great manager. Here’s what I recommend based on my own path.

Is management for you?

I really do mean it when I say that management isn’t the right fit for everyone. I don’t mean that you might fail at management, but that that you have to really want to be a manager. You have to want to dedicate all of your time towards helping other people.

For me, that transition was difficult because I’m naturally a doer. I like crossing things off my own to-do list and I like being able to see the impact I’m making. As a manager, all of that is very different. When you dedicate yourself to being a manager, you have be okay with the fact that the results aren’t going to be as immediate. There’s always going to be the allure of going back to solving problems yourself instead of delegating. And once you fall into that temptation, it all starts to unravel pretty quickly.

Ask yourself the “why”. And be honest with yourself. Do you really want to leave being an individual contributor behind? I used to want people to say, “Kevin’s a problem-solver. If you need something to get done, go to him.”

Now that I’m older and a little wiser, I want people to say, “Kevin really helped me personally.” Rather than focusing on ensuring my own success as an individual contributor, now I want to help my team become the best salespeople they can be. But the honest truth is that it took me longer to get there than it should have, and I let down a lot of people along the way.

If that’s the path you want to go down, management is very rewarding. But don’t fall victim to the myth that you have to go into management in order to level up in your career. One of my team members has been working at our company Smartling for five years. She’s never worked in management and she doesn’t want to. But if you were to ask people at Smartling what would happen if she left, they would groan in absolute horror. She creates so much value doing what she does really well and working on a variety of projects. You can make an impact as a standout individual contributor if that’s what you want to do.

Decide what path you want to go down. Do you want to help other people as a manager, knowing that you will go through challenges and inevitably have to disappoint people? Think about what you want for yourself. Then, you can have the conversation about how to get there.

Listening: the number one skill managers need

So, what skills do you need in management? First, you need to learn how to listen effectively. The best piece of advice I’ve ever received was this: “You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in proportion.”

Sometimes I do a really good job following this principle and sometimes there’s still work to be done. It’s definitely an ongoing process. Managers especially need to listen more frequently than they speak. As an individual contributor, you’ve gotten used to learning how to solve problems on your own. But as a manager, your job is to help people learn how to solve their own problems. In order to be effective in the role, you have to really know how to listen to what people are (and aren’t) saying.

How managers can help you achieve your goals

Regardless of what you want out of your career, you should be having conversations with your manager about your long-term goals. It shouldn’t just be something that’s discussed when a new position opens up or when you want a promotion. I’d always rather have a conversation about my team members’ long-term development that acknowledges they’re going to be moving upwards, maybe to other companies. I want to know: what are your goals and how can I help you get there? Whenever I ask that question, the answers are always interesting.

If your manager isn’t currently providing you with this kind of support, your company may not be fully invested in your growth. A lot of companies grow dependent on standout contributors and don’t want them to move to other companies. So these people end up stagnating in their careers.

You need to be confident that the people you’re working for have your back. If you’re working for someone who really is invested in your growth, then it’s definitely disappointing when you don’t get a promotion. But I would stick with that job. If, on the other hand, you feel like you’re never going to get promoted within your company, I would start looking for work elsewhere. You need a job that will enable growth.

When you are considering a new job, consider how the position will help you grow in your career. I’m consistently surprised by how few job candidates consider this in their job search. I can’t even remember the last time someone asked me, “What’s it like to work with you?” Yet this is such a critical question.

There are many paths to a successful career in sales. But whether you want to become a manager or remain an individual contributor, it’s critical to work with a manager who really cares about your success.