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Manager or Expert: Choosing Your Path

There are many ways to grow in your career. Experts and managers represent two common paths that you may need to choose between as your career develops.

Learn the key differences between experts and managers and the reasons you might choose one career path over the other.

What it means to be an expert

As an expert, you’re a specialist, a knowledge holder, and a problem solver. While you may be a good leader—perhaps you’re already leading a small team—you’re probably not responsible for supervising and managing employees the way many managers are.

You may be called a technical specialist or technical lead. Regardless, you’re considered a thought leader—offering guidance and insight in your area of expertise. Here are some of your strengths:

  • You have a great deal of knowledge or ability in your field because of your education, research, or experience.
  • People recognize you as a professional in your field based on the length of time you’ve been using your knowledge and skills, and the extensive education you’ve received.
  • People also recognize you as someone with reliable skills in your particular area.
  • You have status among your peers and they trust your knowledge and wisdom to make the right decisions.
  • Others call you for advice on their work, especially when they do not have a clear sense of how to move forward.

What it means to manage

As a manager, you direct and nurture a team—sometimes, a large one. You are responsible for managing financial and human resources to help your organization reach its strategic goals. As a manager, your responsibilities include:

  • Making strategic plans, including developing business goals and organizing the resources and finances your team needs to achieve those goals.
  • Making important decisions for your team.
  • Sharing information with your team, other managers, and senior leaders.
  • Managing your team’s internal controls. This includes ensuring that your operations are effective and efficient, that your assets are safeguarded, and your financial information is reliable.
  • Ensuring your team follows laws, regulations, policies, and procedures.
  • Managing and developing people. This includes creating a sense of shared values, delegating responsibility, and monitoring staff (including taking action when someone does not perform well).

Choose the path that’s right for you

Some organizations offer managers and experts equal salaries and opportunities for advancement. But this is not always the case.

Do you prefer the thrill of creativity and expertise over operational and human resources work? Or are you certain that you want to rise as high as possible in your organization—including becoming the Chief Executive Officer (CEO)?

As you decide which path to take, think about how the following key issues, benefits and drawbacks affect your career goals:

Experts get respect

Expertise gained over years or decades gives you great leverage in your organization and beyond. You hold key knowledge that your industry needs. And in most organizations, continuing to work as an expert or technical specialist allows you to develop at least a few management skills.

In addition, experts can be well compensated, just as career managers are. Whether this is possible at your organization depends on many factors. Check in with colleagues and mentors about the best move for you.

If you’re deeply devoted to your area of expertise, be realistic about what jumping to management could mean: that the technical aspects of your work could fall away. Are you ready to give up your expertise and the respect that goes with it? If not, keep the doors open.

Experts can reach a ceiling

The reality is that experts in some organizations will not make it to the most senior levels of leadership. This is because senior leaders generally come from management backgrounds.

In many organizations, senior managers will make major decisions based on advice from experts. This means that if you remain an expert, managers may not make the decisions you recommend. If you choose not to become a manager, it’s important that you’re comfortable with this relationship. Trust your managers to manage.

Managers have access to the C-suite

Depending on your organization, management may be the only path to certain types of success:

  • Senior managers tend to earn more than senior experts.
  • If entering the C-suite—the CEO, Chief Financial Officer (CFO), and other senior leaders who run the company—is an important goal in your career path, joining management is a far safer way to ensure your dream.
  • Having the title of manager on your resumé can boost your credibility with other employers and with your peers in your professional networks.

Management comes with challenges

Moving from expert to manager comes with some potential challenges:

  • You will face operational and human resource responsibilities that have little to do with your area of expertise. Eventually, the people on your team will have more expertise than you.
  • You will be more exposed to risk. As a manager, you’re responsible not only for your own work, but also for the work of your entire team. Can you shoulder that?
  • You’ll likely have to work longer hours, sometimes giving up weekends and evenings to resolve issues that arise. You may not be paid for these hours.
  • Your workplace relationships may change. Now that you’re in charge, your colleagues may view you differently.
  • You’ll be expected to communicate well and often. Poor communication—a top complaint employees have about their managers and senior leaders—will become a significant problem.

Making major career decisions can be intimidating. Take time to research your organization’s culture and attitudes toward experts versus managers. Do the same for your broader industry and occupation. Ask people who have made these decisions how it has shaped their careers.

Whatever path you choose, know that it doesn’t have to be permanent. You are responsible for your own career development. You can always make new decisions and steer your career down the path that best meets your current needs.

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