I have been in the workforce for 12 years and am finally in a job I love. I have led telemarketing departments and run inside sales and trade show groups, but for the past year I've been a product manager with no direct reports. I feel I can do my best work in this role, which uses my talents and allows me to partner with people throughout the company. Now I am being pressured to go back into a leadership role over a technical marketing group, and I'm not interested. I really don't want to deal with hiring and firing and performance reviews anymore. But it seems that in my company and perhaps others, you have to be in management to be viewed as a player. Is there any way to retain my credibility while avoiding the management track?
Midsize and large technology companies have figured out that being brilliant, talented, and motivated is enough to make you a star employee. You don't also have to manage people to excel and to advance. These companies have developed technical tracks to parallel their management tracks, with levels like "research fellow" and "principal engineer" serving as counterparts to the management-side titles of senior manager, director, etc. Creating a technical (or functional, in your case) track is smart because it allows companies to hang onto employees who want to progress in their careers without being turned into managers against their will. I'm sorry your company hasn't gotten on that bandwagon yet.
My advice is to sit down with your boss and lay out your case. You don't have to deliver an ultimatum ("force me to manage people and I'll quit") to let him or her know that your happiness in the company is closely tied to your being able to take assignments that interest you—and management assignments simply don't. Your manager may have lots of ability, or none, to create a career path for you that continues to stimulate and fulfill you professionally.
If you can't make it work in your shop, I'll tell you this: Lots of very senior outside consultants have been in your shoes before. As independents, they get to go into companies and provide the advice that their own senior folks might deliver if they weren't busy writing performance reviews. (Of course, corporate managers will tell you that they're already offering the same advice to their superiors, only they're not listened to—and I'm sure that's true, too.)
Valuable Where You Are
You've got to make a case that your value will be diminished by having to spend time hiring, training, and managing a staff of folks more junior than you. If you spend significant time with clients right now, design an ROI analysis to show how value to the company will be lost when those customers lose access to you. And if you're not a great natural manager of people, don't be afraid to say that. Lots of people aren't, and it's a wonderful thing to know what you're good and not so good at.
I can think of a dozen jobs I'd be fired from in two seconds. If you can get your manager on board with the notion that moving you into management would be synonymous with killing the goose that laid the golden egg, you've got a chance to make things work out.