What Happens When Nobody Wants to Be the Boss?

Back Bloomberg Dec 15, 2015 By Sarah Grant

Job growth and wages are on the rise, which should signal a great time for businesses in the U.S.—except that no one wants to run them. Only one-third of U.S. workers believe becoming a manager will advance their careers, according to recent survey by professional staffing website Addison Group.

The report, composed of 1,496 responses from U.S. employees born between 1946 and 1995, also shows that only a quarter of employees are interested in becoming more effective managers and 17 percent of employees had no interest whatsoever in managing other people.

“This could be a problem if it gets ignored,” said Steve Wolfe, executive vice president of operations at Addison Group, who predicts that if young people are promoted into managment roles they’re not interested in, companies will lose talented employees. “We’re seeing more millennials who want to be knowledge experts today, rather than in charge of other people,” said Wolfe.

Millennials (defined by Addison as people born between 1980 and 1994) are less interested in management than previous generations of young people, said Wolfe, even though they tend to be more interested in promotion and career advancement than older employees, simply because they’re newer to the workforce. The study found that fewer millennials want to be responsible for others, even though they want more personal responsibility, said Wolfe.

“Too often, companies promote their best salesperson to be sales manager, or their best engineer to be engineering manager, because that’s just the track they’re on,” said Wolfe. “We know from decades of research that when that occurs, job satisfaction goes down and turnover goes up.”

Indeed, millennials value job mobility more than other generational groups, the survey found, even if they don’t want to jump through a company’s preordained management hoops. Nearly a quarter of millennials are currently seeking a promotion at their jobs, compared with 19 percent of Gen Xers and nine percent of boomers. Millennials were also most likely to leave a current job if they weren’t able to advance beyond their current roles.

So how do you keep millennials happy if they’re looking for advancement but not a slow march into middle-management? Many technology companies have adapted to this reality by shifting their definition of workplace success. Alphabet (formerly Google) and Oracle, for example, have designed career tracks that don’t lead to manager positions, said Scott DeRue, University of Michigan Ross School of Business associate dean who teaches leadership development.

“Individual career paths run parallel to management paths at these tech companies. The key is, you can be just as successful in either path.” It’s not only that having everyone shoot for the C-suite is unrealistic, said DeRue, it’s that the C-suite may not even jibe with their idea of an enriching lifestyle.

Millennials who want to get ahead but balk at a manager title may simply be reacting to bad branding. “There was a period in the late 1990s where we saw a shift. No one wanted to be in Office Space, but everyone want to lead in their own way,” said DeRue.

Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton School’s Work/Life Integration Project, agrees that management has gotten a bad rep. “Millennials saw their parents devote their lives to those kinds of total-immersion manager jobs, only to be ejected in the financial crisis,” said Friedman, who speculates that millennials want jobs that have more impact, along with fulfilling personal lives. “The perception of managerial life is that it takes you further away from work that really matters.”