Difference between an IC and a Manager (or leader)

The "up or out" mentality seems to be sticky, yet it can be damaging to the organization. Please, make it possible for satisfied long-term individual contributors to be properly rewarded.

I worked at a company once, a mid cap business ($400M or so in turnover) where their mantra was that everybody in the organization was expected to desire the next rung on the ladder. To always be looking for that next promotion, to go from Individual Contributor, to lead, to supervisor, to manager, to senior manager to … well, you get the picture. This expectation was hared coded into their Human Resources rules and guidelines. As a manager of people, it was your prime focus each review cycle to sort people into those who are moving up, and ought to be promoted, and those who have the potential for more responsibility. Needless to say, the people who didn’t want to be on this trajectory were the fodder for the annual “right sizing” exercise.

It was believed that this was the epitome of effective leadership in the company.

However, it was demoralizing on many levels.

First it created tension in the team. There was this overarching goal that pitted people against each other. Knowing that either you were moving up or you were moving out was a serious stressor. What if you were really, really good at your job and didn’t want to do more? What if you were really good at your job, and it led to significant benefits to the company (revenue, customer satisfaction, reduced costs, etc?) Too bad, If you were in the same role with the same title for more than 24 months you made the bad list.

Second it often led to core competencies to stagnate or even decline. Think about a highly skilled, very narrowly defined role. An application scientist isn’t grown from shoddy feedstock, but they are built with a ton of education, and years of day in, day out work in the role. If your application scientist is expected to be moved to a senior role, then into a leadership (aka management role) in a short time frame (say 4 years) or be managed out, you are overloading them with stress. And damaging your business.

Third it seems that they never look at the long term ramifications to the organization structure. If you expect, nay, demand, that your employees move up the ladder on a schedule, unless you are constantly hiring entry level people, you will eventually have a very VERY top heavy organization. More managers than individual contributors. Of course, this never really happens, as you manage out this mid-career individual contributors, having to replace them with fresh staff. At a pretty high cost too!

I am certain you can think of situations where this “move up or move out” mentality is bad. Remember, institutional knowledge is important, and every time a long-time employee walks out the door, you lose something irreplaceable.


Remember, forced career trajectories may seem like a ‘woke’ management practice, but it was born of the Jack Welsh mantra, eliminate the bottom 5% of the organization every year, an idea that seems like it would build a better team, but instead leads to internal strife, conflict, and damaging competition.

Take a step back, realize that it is not a negative to have people who are outstanding at their role remain in that role, as long as they are content. Do work to ensure that they can be rewarded (i.e. not top out, and never get a raise ever again).

Lastly, the only time this up or out might work is if you are hiring a lot of entry level people to move through the organization. I haven’t seen that in a long time at any place I worked at. Might be as dead as the dodo.

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