People or process – the career path dilemma

people management or process management

In your typical large corporation, talented people need to choose, sooner or later, if they want to move into a people management or process management role. This is where juniors go the way of becoming a project associate, manager, team leader, project manager, you name it.

It’s not an easy choice and people have a lot of misconceptions about this. Although roles and job titles can be a bit confusing depending on the company or industry you’ll likely see the same job titles pop up in any major corporation. 

As I’ve been in both roles my experience is that project management is way more challenging from a people perspective and people management is way more challenging when project pops up. Let me explain that.

As a project manager, you need to often manage people to deliver your project and a whole bunch of stakeholders in tight deadlines. I remember my first project very well. It involved contacting customers (which was a sales team privilege) and building a catalog (which was an activity traditionally owned by the sales back office teams) and rethinking the way on how these customers should order (which would have a big impact on customer service and warehouse – two other stakeholders). 

I remember the day I got that assignment very well. I drove home that night with some major questions on whether I would ever survive such a challenge.

How could I deliver the project on time whilst dealing with all those people? I had no idea how to approach this and it felt as they gave me that job just to watch me burn all bridges and quit in despair. On top of this, my boss advised me to not be too open about certain phases of the project to my direct colleagues. These were people I had known and trusted for years. People that did a lot for me in the company. I almost felt like a traitor. This is the kind of stuff to expect when you switch to managing projects. 

Now let’s have a thought about people management.

When I got my first team to manage I felt completely different. I remember being a bit nervous about the more “difficult” characters in the team. But I knew that if I could convince everybody to work together on a common goal things would get easier along the way. In a way, this felt way less as people management to me and much more like “team spirit management”.

Was it easy? Well, not really. I had my share of difficult experiences. I had to fire people I really liked. I had to cut bonuses for no real reason other than some vague upper management strategy. I had to change our objectives every 4 months because of a new CEO or regional sales manager. It’s very difficult sometimes to be a consistent and positive influence on your team. 

So there’s no other way to put it than – both are equally challenging.

It’s extremely important to understand what project management is and how challenging it can be. It has the same degree of loneliness as being a people manager but it is – in my opinion – a job that requires the skill of diplomacy and caring much more than being a straight team leader or people manager. On the other hand, people managers will not only need to be diplomatic, they’ll need to really solve actual conflicts and become mediators or negotiators within their own teams – a challenge on itself which I will explore further in a different article. 

Whatever you choose. Prepare for a couple of things whether you choose to manage people or processes. First of all, you’ll learn how it feels to stand in the spotlights with people watching you in distrust. Whatever the reason may be, some people will be suspicious of whatever you do, say, or promise because well, you’re “the establishment” now. This will, no doubt, lead to moments of loneliness. You might have a mentor or you could talk to your SO in the evening but in the end, nobody will really understand how it feels to be, at some times, truly alone. 

Unfortunately, you’ll encounter a lot of melodrama. If you ever thought that all drama ends after your school days well guess again, it continues on the work floor and gets more pathetic over time. Gossip, backstabbing, and all the general douchebaggery are standard office practices and never really go away. On the management level, this becomes even more visible albeit a bit more in the shadows in the form of high-level office politics (different topic!).

So why in the hell would you ever consider doing this? While it’s certainly not for everyone the rewards are plentiful. If you negotiate your position well you should have some decent pay, benefits and further career opportunities. Depending on the company being a manager on itself grants you perks in the form of general flexibility towards working hours, rules and regulations. You’ll drive your team or projects but you’ll also will be included in management meetings and get a say in the general direction of where things are going. This feels great because you can initiate some real (albeit small) changes. 

On a personal level you’ll learn a lot about yourself and every step out of your comfort zone will feel like a victory on itself. This alone makes managing a project or people an invaluable experience. Finally, leading is the shortest way to fulfillment. Seeing the result of your actions at work is an amazing feeling. Watching people grow and develop on your watch or seeing the final tangible result of your project in action is absolutely priceless. Imagine building something within your company  that turns out a huge success on the consumer market for example – that’s great right?

Here are some pointers though!

  • Find a mentor – as soon as possible.
  • Do not work 24/7. Having a tired boss or project manager is really not helpful for anyone in your team.
  • Don’t focus on what happens during the day – always look at what happens in the bigger picture.

In the next few articles, I will write a bit more about delegation and management techniques.

Keep an eye out for my weekly article and catch up if you want!


Tales from the office helps employees and managers find their way in the vast world of corporate life.

By sharing non-generic real life advice I hope to help anyone out looking for guidance on surviving the rat race.

My advice is based on +10 years of senior management experience in a Fortune 500 company.


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