Do you believe you’ll only be considered successful in your career if you get promoted into a role managing people? Here’s why that thinking is wrong.

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At a recent group discussion with several MBA students I mentor, I asked what it meant to be successful in their careers. Almost every person said success meant being promoted into higher level jobs and eventually managing a large team of people.

So I asked if they thought someone could have a successful career without being a people manager. Many squirmed in their chairs. Then they looked at each other, hoping someone else would answer.

“Did you know research has shown that only about one in 10 employees has the necessary traits to be a good people manager?” I asked. Some raised their eyebrows in surprise. “What happened with companies as they downsized during the recession and laid off workers?” I added.

“They let go a lot of managers,” one person responded.

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Another said: “Companies flattened their organizational structures. That’s what happened where I work. Managers used to have about six employees. Now most of the managers have at least 15 to 20 people reporting to them.”

“What does that mean if you want to become a people manager?” I asked. You could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed.

“It means that it really sucks for us if we want to be a manager. Because now it’ll be even harder since there are fewer management jobs,” answered another. The rest nodded their heads in agreement.

What I realized is that these students thought that they would be failures in their careers if they didn’t become people managers. People managers had been the focus of attention throughout college and in the media — and this had created an unconscious bias against being individual contributors.

So my main message to this group became: You don’t have to be a people manager to have a great career. There are successful individual contributors in all kinds of jobs and in almost every industry – from programmers and sales reps to graphic designers and writers, medical personnel, even lawyers and consultants (and the list could go on forever).

Individual contributors usually love their independence, and another benefit is that they don’t have to deal with many of the issues (and stress) that comes with managing others.

Bottom line: Look inside yourself for your definition of career success. Determine your unique differentiators and then build on those strengths to create the kind of career you want — because you don’t have to be a people manager to have a successful (and fulfilling) career.

Lisa Quast is the founder of Career Woman, Inc., and the author of the book Secrets of a Hiring Manager Turned Career Coach. Email her at