Monday, October 29, 2007

VP or Catalyst

I don't want to be management.

There, I've said it publicly.

I don't want to be in charge of people. I don't want to spend my entire day in meetings. I don't want to have to maintain status quo while "growing the company" or what have you.

I don't care about titles or corner offices or "perks" like "free iPhones" (a perk with an ulterior motive if I've ever seen one....)

At the end of the day - I just want to get stuff done. To see real progress towards a useful goal. The days where I have concrete evidence that I've accomplished something (finished a tutorial, mapped out next steps on a project, completed one of those steps, etc.) are the days I go home satisfied.

Harold Jarche reminded me that there are other, equally valid, career paths beyond just climbing the corporate ladder.

One of the five requirements for a successful starfish organization is to have a catalyst. In many ways, I think that is the role I’ve played, or tried to, in various organizations over the years, and it explains why I quickly lost interest in climbing the corporate ladder.


Catalysts are bound to rock the boat. They are much better at being agents of change than guardians of tradition. Catalysts do well in situations that call for radical change or creative thinking. They bring innovation, but they’re also likely to create a certain amount of chaos and ambiguity. Put them into a structured environment and they might suffocate. But let them dream and they’ll thrive. (p. 131 - The Spider and the Starfish)


As I've aged, I'm discovering that I'm not cut out for climbing the corporate ladder. And that I've, sometimes unwittingly, played the role of the catalyst (even despite my best efforts to be the good corporate soldier). I think back on all of the jobs I've had over my career and in almost all of them I've left the job with something useful and lasting for the organization. For example:

- New warehouse processes and forms for tracking equipment availability (back in my stagehand days)
- Building a portable video teleconferencing system (before cheap webcams, broadband cable and compact communication protocols)
- Transitioning medical practices from paper to computer.

I find that once I get things somewhat stable, I get restless. Planing, creating and building are fun. Maintaining, not so much. And I've never been a big fan of breaking things just to keep myself entertained.

Over the past few months, I've found myself second-guessing my career aspirations. And getting advice from well-meaning friends and family:


Don't say you're not interested in promotion publicly. Then they will never see you as leadership material.


But leadership comes in many different forms. And in my mind, being a VP or mucky muck of some ilk does NOT automatically make you a leader.

The ability to create positive improvement in an environment, in my mind, is one of the characteristics of a great leader. Notice I did NOT ambiguously say change.

Often, I find mucky mucks like creating big change for change's sake because it makes them LOOK like a leader. They can get people running around, looking busy, and proclaim, "Look!!!! Change is happening!!!!!" I'm finding, however, that this type of change often does more harm to the organization than good.

Small tweaks can create positive progress. And it's the ability to know when a major change needs to occur (not as often as we think) vs. a small adjustment that marks an intelligent leader.

I'm going to embrace my role as catalyst. With all of the personal instability that entails. In the end, as long as I leave wherever I'm at better than I found it, I've been successful.

1 comment:

Karyn Romeis said...

I understand exactly how you feel. This is a dilemma I have faced repeatedly since I was first offered the opportunity to take a management role 14 years ago.

My reasons have changed. Initially, I didn't want to go back to full time work while my sons were little. Then I found my niche as a specialist and didn't want to lose exposure to the things I was good at and which I found rewarding. There were two occasions when I was called in and asked to apply for a management role. Both times I knew the role would take me away from the classroom, so I refused.

The trouble is when you then find yourself reporting to far less experienced people who don't understand what you do, haven't got a clue how to manage specialists and feel threatened by the whole business and so prevent you from being a catalyst.

In frustration, I recently applied for a management role, and was told that the main factor counting against me was that I had not "risen" to management level earlier, which must surely indicate that I had previously been identified as not having sufficient potential and therefore doomed to eternal juniordom. I was relieved not to be employed by a company that considered managers inevitably superior to specialists!