CAREER PATH

People Management

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14 MINUTE READ

Managing people is critical to almost every organization in the world, regardless of cause area, industry or structure. People management has the potential for enormous impact, and the flexibility of being applicable to a wide range of fields. On the other hand, it can be challenging to improve and accurately evaluate your impact on this path. Overall we believe this can be a highly impactful career path, but achieving impact is extremely sensitive to personal fit.

Our confidence in the content of this article is moderate.

 

Path overview

 

What do we mean by people management?

People management is the skill of managing others - whether that’s managing their tasks and responsibilities, keeping them motivated and value-aligned, providing whatever is necessary for them to perform their role effectively, and more. In many organizations (though not all) it is tightly coupled with seniority and promotions, as well as more strategic decision-making. Many industries do not perceive people management as a separate profession; they expect their managers to specialize in the specific profession and grow from an individual contributor role to a management position. As such, it doesn’t always make sense to treat people management as a separate career path early on in your career.

 

This path has some overlap with operations management, though that role definition aggregates within it many additional careers and responsibilities that are unrelated to people management.

 

How promising is people management?

 

We believe people management is well placed to generate outsized impact. There are structural reasons for this due to the leverage of influencing the work of many people who may be just as productive as you (or even more so). That being said, in this case having a large impact doesn’t mean your impact will necessarily be positive. A people manager is a neutral role, empowering whatever organization it works for (as opposed to, for example, doctors whose impact is usually positive). Therefore, as a manager, choosing an organization which has (or could have) significant positive impact is critically important. 

 

The top percentiles of people managers can achieve genuinely enormous impact. Virtually all groundbreaking advances in history, from social movements, scientific research breakthroughs, successful government interventions, or humanitarian accomplishments relied on leaders to drive them forward. There’s also significant research showing that teams with good managers tend to have significantly better outcomes across geographies and industries - influencing productivity, sales, growth, employee turnover, and more. The vast majority of this research is correlational and not causal, which warrants some skepticism, though there are some limited RCTs supporting causality. The influence of managers is most clear in reducing employee turnover, which has a long list of secondary effects. We believe people managers are especially well-placed for enormous impact when they combine strong people management skills with more profession-specific abilities, which allows them to identify outstanding opportunities, provide professional guidance at a large scale, and provide significant value to large high-quality organizations. 

 

Advantages

  • Potential for extremely high impact - By directing many others, and working on improving their ability to perform and deliver on high impact goals (or even set the right goals in the first place), people management allows the potential for genuinely enormous impact.

  • High career capital - Many industries equate people management with seniority, and so people management tends to look good on your resume, generate more valuable connections, and pay better than many other roles.

  • Very flexible - People managers are a critical resource across cause areas, organizations types (governmental, industry or non-profits). Due to their transferability, career capital you gain will be at least partially useful if you decide to change industries/goals.

  • High demand - Good people managers seem to be a bottleneck for organizations in many industries. This has good implications both for your employability, and your ability to meaningfully empower the organizations you work for.

Disadvantages

  • Difficult to improve - Getting clear feedback is challenging, and existing resources and training programs in this field are generally only moderately effective. As a result it is harder to find systematic ways to improve yourself.

  • May come at the expense of domain expertise - In some industries, a strong emphasis on people management early on may come at the expense of building core expertise in the profession, which may end up harmful to your career and impact overall. This is highly profession-dependent, and we believe this is not a major risk for mid-career individuals who have many years of experience as individual contributors.

  • Can be emotionally demanding - As a people manager, your responsibilities are towards other people rather than only executing professional tasks. This can include more conflicts, dealing with crises, etc. It also makes it more difficult to completely disconnect from work when you want to.

Is it a good fit for you?

 

As mentioned above, people management is a career path where personal fit is particularly important. One of the reasons for this is that there just aren’t many good tools to teach everyone how to do this, so your natural abilities end up being more important (which isn’t to say one can’t learn and improve in people management - see strategies and next steps).

So what makes you a good fit for people management?

  • Strong interpersonal skills - People managers need to get along well with a wide range of personalities, be good at understanding people’s needs, be effective communicators, and preferably enjoy (or at least not dislike) interacting with others. This should include being able to have “tough” conversations with people. Interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are the most important components in being a people manager.

  • Jack of all trades - It helps to be more of a generalist, at least relative to the team you manage. If you want to manage a team of cybersecurity researchers, for example, you don’t need to be good at philosophy - but you’ll probably gain more from understanding different aspects of cybersecurity than being the top expert on the ARM architecture.

  • Interest in the goal more than the professional challenge - Many people who move from a professional role to people management report missing doing more direct professional work. Happy people managers are often driven by the goals they’re pursuing, rather than the domain-specific professional challenge of solving the problem. Alternatively, they may be excited about the professional challenge of managing people effectively, or driven by their personal relationships with others.

  • Strategic and high-level perspective - Managers often engage with the professional material at a high level. They can ask the right questions, keep the team focused on top priorities, and provide high-level guidance within their domain. They know where the team or project needs to go and can break that vision down to concrete tasks - even if they leave it to others to fill in some of the details.

 

What traits indicate people management is not the best fit for you?

  • Emphasis on deep, focused work - If you prefer diving into the depths of intellectually challenging problems, or focusing on direct work for hours (or maybe weeks) without interruption, people management is probably not for you.

  • Mismatch in expectations on time and flexibility - People managers don’t always have to work more than the people they manage, but in some industries they will need to respond to things urgently. Before you invest significantly in becoming a people manager in a specific industry, try to find out what the expectations of availability from managers are in that industry to make sure they align with your capacity and plans.

  • Extremely talented in a narrow professional skill - If you are extremely talented in a specific skill and can do direct work no one else can do, it may be worth considering focusing your work on doing exactly that. We’ve also mentioned that combining strong professional skills with management skills can create scalable high quality work, but there are also cases where you can do more good yourself than trying to direct others.

 

How to test personal fit

 

Life is more complex than a few bullet points, so before deciding on any career paths, we recommend experimenting to find out how good your fit is to the specific role. Following are a few recommended ways to check whether people management is a good fit for you:

 

  • Check your natural disposition and preferences - In informal settings, do you organically take the role of organizing plans, making sure tasks are completed, and looking after others? If not, try to adopt such a role and see how comfortable you feel in that setting.

  • Leading a casual project with friends - Try to find a project to work on in your free time with friends, and try to organize the collaboration. See how good you are (and how much you enjoy) planning the work, communicating with team members about their responsibilities, making decisions about the project, and keeping everyone happy. This is a microcosm of what people management is all about.

  • Ask to lead a project at work - An informal leadership role over some effort at work is a great way to check out whether management is for you in a more realistic setting, without fully committing to a management position.

Priorities within people management

Since management roles are needed in almost every industry and cause area, one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is choosing a cause area. In this section we’ll add only those considerations that are specific to people managers.

Due to the breadth of domains managers are relevant for, it’s infeasible for us to generate (and maintain) a list of domains where managers can have enormous impact (there are many). Instead, we describe several considerations that will allow you to identify promising opportunities for management roles.

 

We believe a large portion of managers’ influence is captured by the following two effects:

  • Acting as an impact multiplier for the work of others - as noted above, good managers appear to be able to increase overall productivity of the team under them, sometimes by dozens of percentage points.

  • Allowing for organizational growth - managers in an organization are often a limiting factor on how many employees can be hired. This means that even an average (or even a passable) manager can have a large positive impact by enabling their organization to grow.

These two dominant effects can help prioritize what organizations and fields might be most promising, in the following ways:

  • When boosting the productivity of others, the current (or potential) impact of the team you’re managing can be critical. We think joining organizations that are already extremely effective is generally a good idea, but this is particularly true for management roles - often trumping other considerations influencing your marginal impact. Identifying these organizations can be hard, but a great place to start is the open manager positions on 80,000 Hours’ job board. 

  • Organizations that are growing extremely fast (e.g. after a major investment or grant) are often bottlenecked on filling managerial positions with decent managers. Hence, joining such organizations (while still requiring significant positive impact from them) is great for your counterfactual impact. It also happens to be great for your career capital as a manager. 

 

Two domains where we’ve seen lots of organizations doing extremely impactful work while being painfully bottlenecked by management hires are in core Effective Altruism organizations (with organization leaders highlighting again and again the need for managers), and in Animal Advocacy (with a review of the needs here). These are just two examples among many, but ones we can fairly confidently say there is highly impactful work bottlenecked on management talent.

An additional type of exceptional management opportunities are roles where you'd have the autonomy to influence significant resources (e.g. funding, manpower, etc.) and believe you'd be able to make those decisions in a significantly better or more impact-focused manner than others. We believe such roles exist for experienced managers in government, industry and the nonprofit sector - but they require verifying whether you'd truly have strategic autonomy since that's not always the case even for senior positions. We elaborate on a similar logic in our grantmaking career profile.

 

Strategies and next steps

Getting into the field

Managing people by definition occurs within a specific context or industry, and most entry-level positions in most industries do not include management. As a result, you’ll likely need to get your first roles based on other skills, and then advance into management positions. Here are several recommendations on how to do so:

 

  • Excel at your role, even if it includes no management aspects. Justifiably or not, most industries tend to promote strong individual contributors into management - so performing well in your non-management roles can significantly improve your chances of getting a management position.

  • Try to reach great managers and mentors. Learning from people with experience is important in management, whether you do that by seeing them in action or asking for advice. Try to seek role models that support your goal of becoming a manager, and are willing to invest in teaching you (or at least providing some guidance).

  • Identify informal opportunities for management. Try persuading your peers to help out with an exciting project at work, volunteer to manage an informal project such as a fundraiser, or ask for permission to spend part of your time on a project you initiate (and will hopefully someday lead).

  • Consider the option of getting an MBA. In some industries this can be helpful, though we’d highly recommend checking with managers familiar with your context on whether this is a good choice for you. Also, much of the value in MBAs is in the addition to your resume and the connections you make, so trying to get into a prestigious school is more important in this degree than in most others.

Once you’ve managed to land your first management opportunity (congratulations!), there are several things that can help you perform better - and even more importantly, improve more quickly:

  • Being open, honest and modest. It’s okay if you make mistakes or aren’t sure what to do, if you are honest with your employees and build trust. If you clearly care about them and your mutual mission, they’ll want to help even if you make mistakes as an inexperienced manager.

  • Treat people management as a skill set of its own. Management is a profession of its own, which you can learn, practice, improve at and excel at. Treat it with the same thoughtfulness as you would any other profession. The books in the Additional content section can be a good start.

  • Opportunity-based exploration. Throughout your career, try to identify new opportunities of where to take your team, or even what roles to take. This is even more important than in most roles, since management positions aren’t naturally very flexible - they depend on team structures and when specific individuals leave their job.

Excelling in the field

 

Truly great managers drive their teams towards success, and are able to extend their influence over large teams and in a wide range of circumstances. Being an experienced manager doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good one. Here are a few tips towards becoming an exceptionally good manager:

  • Care deeply about both the mission and the people involved. Managers that prioritize only one and not the other often fail at sustainably achieving their teams’ goals.

  • Adapt to specific people and circumstances. Not only is there more than one way to be a good manager, no single approach to management is sufficiently good on its own, as different people will need different things from you. Explore management styles, and provide your employees with what they need - not what your a priori view of correct management dictates.

  • Focus on top skills required for managers. Management advice can be confusing and often contradictory, but several traits that seem to consistently arise from research include: speaking honestly with others, expressing concern for team members, investing in motivating team members to pursue your vision, and conveying clear goals and requirements focused on achieving results.

  • Learn the tools required to answer management questions reliably. Consider learning how to review the literature of evidence-based management, though admittedly this methodology requires non-trivial upfront effort.

Career alternatives

 

If you’re not sure you want to become a people manager, other potentially high-impact paths you might want to consider include:​

Additional content

Recommended books geared towards becoming a better manager:

Additional resources and aggregations of articles:

 

Acknowledgements

To produce this career path profile, we have interviewed and collaborated with some of the leading experts in the field. For their help, we would like to give special thanks to:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Daniel Kestenholtz

Amy Buechler

Dean Sysman

Co-Founder and CEO at Axonius

Where to go from here: