How to Break Into Management

As an executive recruiter, I get posed a myriad of questions by candidates. One of the more common lines of questioning is centered on how to get into management from an individual contributor role.

The typical conversation goes like this:

Me: “Well, Mr/Mrs Candidate, I have a great understanding of your background. What about your interests? What can I find for you in the marketplace that you currently don’t have in your job?”

Candidate: “I’m not interested in making a lateral move, but I would consider taking a hard look at a management position. Do you have any management positions on your desk?”

Me: “Have you ever managed a team of (specific function) before?”

Candidate: “No, but I’m ready to.”

Have you ever caught yourself in this conversation? If so, keep reading…

Me: “I understand that you are open to looking at management positions and that you are probably ready for that next step in your career. The unfortunate news is that whenever a company asks me to fill a management role, a prerequisite to even submit a candidate is for them to have previously managed within the specific function.”

Candidate: “I managed 12 people when I was a Director of Pharmacy before I got into Industry, so I have management experience.”

Me: “That sounds like an amazing experience, and I’m sure that experience helped you break into industry. I’ve noticed that when companies are looking to hire managers of (specific function), they want candidates who have managed people doing (specific function).”

Candidate: “That’s kind of a catch-22 isn’t it? I mean, how can I get a management job without management experience in (specific function)? No one is born with management experience; they had to be given a shot at some point right?”

Does this sound familiar? If so, keep reading…

Me: “It’s true, new managers break in occasionally. The thing is that they typically (9-out-of-ten times) do it within their own company. So, as you evaluate your situation, if there isn’t a road to management for you, it might be time to get on a different path.”

Candidate: “What do you mean?”

Me: “Well, think of it like this. Think of your current company as an elevator. If you want to get to the 9th floor, but the elevator you’re on only goes to the 8th floor, then you might want to consider changing elevators. I know it isn’t easy to leave your current elevator. There is some inconvenience and risks associated with getting out of your elevator, walking across the room to another bank of elevators, evaluating those new elevators, and getting in a new one. The thing is that one of them might be going up. Does that make sense?”

Candidate: “I think so. So, you’re saying that if I don’t have a career trajectory that is going up at my current position that I should make a lateral move to a company who can set my career trajectory aimed at where I want to go, right?”

Me: “Essentially, yes, but predicting which elevator is going up isn’t easy.”

Candidate: “Well, how do I even begin to do it?”

Me: “This would be my advice— look at the org. chart. There is a structure that I see where one-to-two years later they are beginning to promote their people. I’m getting the sense that you want this promotion to happen soon, so this is the org. chart I would seek. The company has a VP, a Sr. Director (both in-house), and then it goes all the way down to the individual contributor. They don’t yet have field-based management in place.”

Candidate: “Yeah, but aren’t those companies risky?”

Me: “Every company is risky these days. If you truly want a shot at management quickly, this is the org. chart to look for. It’s true though, you usually would be joining a company about to launch their first product and with limited infrastructure. As long as you evaluate the company and product and make a smart decision, you will be okay. When the launch goes well, and they expand, you will be grandfathered in and considered for a management role.”

Candidate: “A friend of mine went from an individual contributor at his company to a manager of another company.”

Me: “I’m not saying it is impossible; I’m just saying it is very unlikely. In the cases I’ve seen where someone has gone from an individual contributor at one company to a manager of another company, someone high up in the new company hand picks them.”

Candidate: “Interesting, that is what happened in my friend’s case.”

Me: “In my career as a recruiter, I’ve worked on filling countless manager roles. In that time, only two of them were not current managers. The reason those two were filled with non-mangers is because the money they were offering wasn’t at a level that would attract a current manager. They both changed levels, but for a very incremental salary increase.”

Candidate: “I had no idea that my expectations were so off. If you hear of a really good company that is building a team and is looking for senior-level individual contributor, keep me informed. Let’s evaluate together if it’s an elevator that is going up!”

I hope this dialogue helps you see how you might break into management. Remember, there are exceptions to every rule. Even as I’m writing this, I am thinking of a few people I know that didn’t go the route outlined above. I must also disclose that their stories are the rarest of exceptions. If you’d like to discuss this topic live, my line is always open. If after reading this, you want to catch the next elevator going up, let’s set up a time to talk.

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