“Stepping down” from leadership

Automattic has a fairly flat structure. One of the most evident ways is that there is movement from a team lead position to an individual contributor (IC) without a loss of salary or this being seen as a demotion.

What are the advantages?

I now have eight team leads reporting to me, with likely quite a few more to be added before the end of this year. From my perspective as the division lead, there are two massive advantages to this.

The first is that I can confidently say to new leads that they do not need to worry about being locked in a lead position for life. I ask them to go into the role with the plan to commit to at least a year. But even then, there are several examples of leads who moved to a different role before the end of that year. The fact that we still have several former leads in our division also allows future leads to chat about their experiences.

I think this also captures the rich diversity and experience of human life better. For some people, leadership is in their blood, and they feel extremely confident in that role. It’s also where they shine the best. For others, it’s something they may want to try. Or it’s something that matches well with a phase or stage of their life, but they may prefer to change to a different role at a later stage.

When I chat with new leads or people who I think should consider stepping into a leadership role, I almost every time can see the visible relief when I confirm that I don’t expect them to commit to this forever but just for a year at a time. I think that is because their lived experience on life changes matches the expectations I set before them.

The second advantage is that we do not artificially keep people in a position that’s not or no longer right for them. People change, and so do their circumstances. The result of that change might be that being a lead becomes more of a burden than anything else and from that point on, taking on that role becomes detrimental for not just the division but also for the people they lead and for themselves. No longer seeing reward in the job is one of the ways to reach burnout. I’d like to avoid burnout as much as we possibly can.

By raising the pay purely based on role rather than on performance in that role, we’re mismatching changes and consequences. If it’s clear that someone — for whatever reason — isn’t fit to be a lead anymore, changing to a different role is a tough decision to make, not in the least because of the social perception. Adding the threat of loss of income on top of that only makes that decision harder. So I’m glad that at Automattic, we do not include this element in the process.

And the challenges?

As I already mentioned above, there is still a big social and cultural stigma on changing from a lead to an IC role. It’s even embedded in our vocabulary; we’re talking about “stepping down” as if being a lead is of higher value. Even though I’ve started deliberately avoiding this terminology, I still regularly catch myself using it.

Instead, I try to talk about “changing roles” or “stepping out of/into” a new role. When I coach a lead in this process – which I’ve done a few times now – I try to make this explicit as soon as I hear them talking about “stepping down”. I call them out on its use and explain that I don’t see it as such. I happily use one of the several examples of people who have changed roles over the years and have thrived in the wake of it. These are examples that those new leads or (almost former) leads can mirror themselves to slowly start shifting the mindset that being a lead is somehow more important than not being one.

Another challenge does revolve around the lack of salary increase; how do you attract people to take on a role that requires quite a bit of effort if it doesn’t result in extra pay? It’s a discussion that often recurs at Automattic. I think it’s an important one to have. That said, at the moment, I can only persuade ICs into a lead role purely based on the intrinsic value of the job: whether they would enjoy the lead position is the determining factor.

While I think some people might like the idea of being a lead for its prestige, I’m not entirely convinced that at Automattic, the position is seen as a prestigious one. In any case, it has resulted in my leading a group of team leads driven by the prospect of helping others grow and creating space for their team members to flourish. They aren’t motivated by salary (how could they be?) but by the thought of helping others and believing that the lead role is the best way they can currently do this.

The result of this has been that — while it’s been a bit more tricky to convince people — I’m incredibly grateful about the current line-up of team leads and about those who’ve led in the past.

Questions

The concept of not rewarding employees who move to a lead role financially is quite a novel idea for most people I’ve chatted to. What are some of the questions or potential pitfalls you can see? I’ll happily explore these further with you.

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