How to Convince Your Boss You Should Be a Manager

You don’t need management experience to have leadership potential

An illustration of a person walking up building blocks and holding the block for the next step.
An illustration of a person walking up building blocks and holding the block for the next step.
Illustration: Simo Liu

Jessica Powell, the former Google vice president who wrote The Big Disruption and told you how to quit your job, is here to answer your common but tricky work questions. Check back every other week for more management advice with a tech inflection.

I’m an individual contributor at a growing company. Some of my peers have recently been promoted into management roles, and I’d like to be considered for a management position, too. How do I make the case for myself if I’ve never managed anyone before?

InIn an ideal world, you would never have to tout your managerial potential to your bosses. It would be obvious that with your brilliant individual performance, collaborative working style, and leaderlike behavior, you were a natural pick to become a manager.

That happens for some people. But quite often, who does and doesn’t get picked to be a manager is driven by a number of things — from the reasonable (for example, a specific skill set or geographic location is needed for a specific managerial role) to the unfair (for example, favoritism, whose work is most visible to the boss’s boss, or who fits the company’s typical manager profile in terms of age, race, gender, etc.).

That said, there are definitely ways to improve your chances at getting a shot at a managerial role. For the purpose of this column, I’m going to assume that you’re already an amazing performer. If that’s not the case, I would start there — people who are poor performers don’t tend to be elevated to managerial roles.

Express your intent

First and foremost, make your wishes known to your manager. You can’t assume that your manager already knows you want this. But if you politely and productively ask what qualities or increased responsibilities they‘d like to see you take on in order to eventually become a manager, you will have eliminated at least one of the barriers toward reaching this promotion. If your boss does eventually promote someone else into a management role, they won’t have the excuse of not knowing your interest.

Make a plan with your boss

Good managers support employees in their career goals (in this case, a management role). Ask whether your manager would be open to creating a plan with you — not with the guarantee that you will get a manager role at the end (those things are hard to guarantee, given business fluctuations), but to track how you are progressing toward your goal.

This is useful for two reasons:

  1. You can regularly check in on your plan and get concrete feedback from your manager on how you’re doing, outside the standard performance review cycle.
  2. Every time you refer to that plan, it’s yet another reminder to your manager that you really want this and are working hard to achieve it.

If I had two roughly equal candidates for a role, and one had put in a lot of work into identifying and then setting out to achieve certain manager-related milestones, that would be the tie-breaker.

Act like a leader

This is pretty obvious, but here it goes: If you want to be a leader, you need to act like one. There are a bunch of traits that map to this: trustworthiness, decisiveness, collaborativeness, and an ability to problem-solve and bring others along with your idea. Can you think of good examples of how your work and contributions embody these traits?

For example, say there is a cross-functional project that consists of one representative each from several different departments. The group has been tasked with tackling a particular problem, but no leader has been appointed, and it’s up to the group to work collaboratively. The ability to influence people even when you don’t have direct authority over them is a huge sign of leadership potential. Are you a productive member of the group? Are you helping drive the project forward? What would others in that group say about you?

In addition, keep in mind that you might be doing all of the right things, but that work is only visible to your peers. You need to find ways to surface these contributions to your boss and/or the other decision-makers in your reporting chain. One good way to do this is to volunteer to take on an additional project or lead a group effort.

Finally, in your quest for managerial greatness, don’t forget that you’re also evaluated in how you perform and interact with the rest of your team. People who aren’t collaborative or reliable, have sharp elbows, or lack good communication and people skills, are clearly going to be less attractive candidates for running a team.

People who are cutthroat mercenaries to their peers, but act like angels around their managers, may advance in the short-term. But other peers will also advance, and that kind of bad behavior is not forgotten. In other words: Be better than everyone else, but be nice — the kind of person someone would want to work for one day.

Technophile, technophobe. Music software start-up founder. Former Google VP. Author, The Big Disruption. Fan of shochu, chocolate, and the absurd.

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