Almost 15 years ago, I started my professional working life as an entrepreneur, cofounding a process automation company. At that time, I read whatever material I could find about entrepreneurship. One piece of advice from the well-known Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki really stood out to me back then: “Hire better than yourself” (right next to “make meaning, not money,” but that is a different story). This would really make a difference later in my life.
For many, the obvious career path runs through senior management positions. Land a position as CXO, and you’ve made it. But shouldn’t a company cofounder aim to be CEO or CTO? Not necessarily.
From the beginning of our startup, my cofounder and I were coCEOs. We soon began to form teams and eventually, I found myself being a team lead and people manager. I should note that I am a techie at heart and had no prior experience in people management at that time. While I certainly did get along somehow, I recognized that my heart wasn’t in it. It’s simply not my biggest talent to manage a group of people on a day-to-day basis, let alone a group of managers. I wanted to build value differently by focusing on what I truly cared about—the technology, the users, and the field of process automation combined with software development itself.
My cofounder Jakob is very different. He does have a deep passion for building an organization that can push forward ideas. He always looks at “the genius who builds a machine,” and this machine allows scale. This is his passion, and he was ready to learn anything necessary to get the company to that state.
So when the time came to discuss our own roles to grow the company beyond a certain size, Jakob was the natural choice as CEO. At the same time, I consciously decided against following a management career path going for CTO, or the like. Instead, I slowly transitioned into the roles I have today: cofounder and chief technologist.
While Jakob often immerses himself deep in operational issues, I spend more time studying trends that will affect the business long term. While our senior leadership team oversees the organization and team structure, I focus on customer architectures and pain points. While others manage people, I serve as a resource for the staff making myself available for projects, consultations, presentations, advice, or any interesting debate.
I could not be happier in any other role. Still, this was not an easy decision in the beginning. Non-management careers are rather the exception than the rule. And while companies value experts and their contributions, there is still perhaps a loss of prestige around those. This is a missed opportunity for most organizations. It is especially sad to see startups rebuilding just another traditional role model in their company framework instead of acknowledging that a different path can bring more success and career satisfaction.
Let me give you some concrete advice on how to improve career paths in your organization.
If you feel you are an expert: Don’t try to be somebody else and don’t let yourself be shoehorned into a management position.
Doing what you really love will not only make you happier but also more successful. Going into a management position without having any passion or talent for management increases the risk that you will become a bad manager.
While some of you might intuitively know that people management is not for you, the tricky part is that most people don’t really know this up-front. Most need to try it out first. And you have to give it enough time (probably at least a year), so that you can get into the management habits. Only then can you really judge.
I find it important to evaluate this trial period carefully. Be true to yourself. If the management career is nothing for you, you are probably better off going back to an individual contributor role, or probably an expert role if your company offers that. You might not get another bonus for doing so, but I am convinced it would make you happier anyway. During the last few years I met just a handful of people that really consciously stepped down from a management position to become individual contributors again (a very famous example being HashiCorps Mitchell Hashimoto). I have deep respect for them—and as far as I know, none of them regretted their decisions.
Advice to managers
I was intrigued when I first read the Peter principle that “employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.” Peter concludes that as a result, all senior management roles in sufficiently large organizations are staffed with incompetent people.
This is at least a very interesting thought, and I find it important that every manager is aware that not every employee wants to be, or should become, a people manager or even CXO.
Advice to founders
As a founder, you have a very special role. First, you can shape the organization of the company. It is up to you if experts are acknowledged within your company or not.
But second, you also have to be true to yourself. Is organization-building your passion? Or should somebody else become CEO, at least when you reach a certain scale of the company? Can you put purpose first and ego second, to make your company successful, with you on the board, but not as CEO? I know that this is really hard. It was also hard for me—and I was in the comfortable position that my cofounder could take this over. It gets even harder to trust external people with this. I am thankful that I always had that little Guy Kawasaki in my ear: “Hire better than yourself. Go, find people that will do this better than you.”
Whenever you decide to thrive into an expert role, here are some final tips:
Always be nice and helpful
Experts or technologists don’t have traditional power over people. They are nobody’s boss. They are not hooked in the hierarchy but might work in the office of the CTO. That means that as an expert you must lead very indirectly. To do this you need a good network in the company to reach the right people. And those people need to be happy to talk to you. You make this so much more likely, if you are simply nice and always as helpful as possible. The best allies are those that know that they can 100% trust in you.
I felt that this was especially important for me as a cofounder of the company, as people were often afraid to talk to me, as I might be too important, too busy, or somehow “above their pay grade.” This is nonsense if you work in an expert role. You care about making a difference, not about status or titles!
Embrace slack time
As an expert, you have the luxury of having more control over your time, as you don’t have to put out that many daily fires as your manager colleagues. This allows you to clear space in your head as well as on your calendar to focus on certain topics and dedicate more time to thinking, but also be simply available on short notice.
Find the right company
If your company does not acknowledge expert careers, you might struggle in this company in the long run if you don’t follow a management career path. So, if you don’t want to end up in Peter’s statistics, search for a better company to work for.
Bernd Rücker is cofounder and chief technologist at Camunda.