The business world has been moving towards flat hierarchies for a while now — fewer intermediate managers, more teams working in coordination, increased collective participation in decision-making.
And yet, when most people think of promotions or growth opportunities, the mind jumps at once to being put in charge of a team of one's own. The truth is, however, that not everyone wants to be a manager.
Despite the salary hike, the long working hours and increased admin and strategic responsibilities do not appeal to many employees who would instead focus on working by themselves and becoming subject matter experts.
Many, however, may end up accepting such roles because they fear stagnation if they do not. And in many cases, the lack of motivation to manage other people and the reduced opportunity to increase one's expertise lead to poor performance and job dissatisfaction — all because the company didn't utilize a valuable resource in the right fashion.
So, how can a company support the growth of these individual contributors without pushing them into managerial roles? This article will help you but first, let us go back to the basics:
Who or what is an individual contributor?
Short for Individual Contributor, an IC is an employee who is not on a managerial track but contributes independently to the company's goals.
Typically, an individual contributor has expertise in one or more areas and is keen on enhancing that expertise through more responsibilities and learning opportunities. They may report to a manager and work with a team but are not directly responsible for the outcome.
Individual contributor vs manager: main differences
- Managers are in charge of a team of multiple employees, while an individual contributor is a one-person team.
- Managers take on more strategic tasks, including setting the goals and milestones for each team member and ensuring that those goals are met. On the other hand, individual contributors take on more tactile tasks, such as sorting the files in an online knowledge base or writing the content for a marketing campaign.
- Managers have a lot of admin-related responsibilities, which means that they delegate most of the on-ground tasks to team members (including individual contributors). Individual contributors usually do not have admin duties, so they have more time to hone their skills and acquire more knowledge.
What makes individual contributors indispensable?
Leadership skills are not the only measure of competence. Not everybody who is talented is cut out to head a team, nor should they have to. Individual contributors add to a company in crucial ways because they spend most of their time on tasks that they are experts at.
Obviously, specific skills help them fit better into the team and contribute to collective goals more effectively. Here are some characteristics that help them stand out and what companies should nurture in them:
1. Strong organization skills
Individual contributors tend to be great at planning, both for themselves and for others. They can pinpoint goals, chalk out work strategies, set their deadlines, and meet them without the need for managerial supervision — and they can do this for multiple tasks.
Often, they use tech tools to manage their projects and track their time, which helps them stay efficient. They are also more likely to have contingency plans formed well in advance if unforeseen problems crop up.
Typically, given the number of tasks that ICs work on at one go, it helps to have an organized workspace free of clutter or distractions. Companies can support this by providing access to whatever productivity tools the IC might require.
2. Effective interpersonal communication
While individual contributors work on their own much of the time, they still need to coordinate with others from time to time.
For instance, the content specialist of a marketing firm will need to work with the design team to ensure that the content collaterals have the right look and feel.
Therefore, individual contributors communicate quickly, share all the information that the other party needs, and are also great listeners.
They present information and perspectives clearly and logically and ensure that everyone in the conversation has understood. This helps them build a strong rapport with their colleagues.
On the other hand, teams should maintain open communication with their individual contributors so that help can be obtained or provided as and when needed, without delay.
If the fellow team member knows precisely when the IC will turn over a certain assignment, they can plan out the rest of the project.
3. Robust team collaboration
Individual contributors are highly competent at their tasks and at getting tasks done for the team as a whole. They are timely about their group commitments, collaborate well during work meetings, and effectively assist others with their goals.
They are also good at maintaining cordial informal relations with their team members. For instance, when group projects are to be completed, the individual contributor may need to pitch in with collective tasks and lend their voice to project meetings.
On occasion, they may even need to help team members whose tasks are directly linked with what they themselves are doing.
Suppose an individual contributor has been working primarily on their own so far. In that case, the company should actively encourage more group participation and provide any assistance needed, such as introductions to other department members.
4. Highly results-driven
You can depend on individual contributors to be consistent about the results they deliver. They assume personal responsibility for their tasks, understand the deliverables before starting, work without much direction or supervision, and finish whatever they start promptly. That makes them highly reliable.
5. Supremely accountable
At the end of the day, the individual contributor likes to be in charge of their role. The company should thus ensure that the IC has as much time and space as they need to do their job effectively. This is, in fact, a bonus for the company, as the individual contributors would not need as much managerial intervention and can manage multiple responsibilities on their own.
What an individual contributor needs from the employer
Equating promotions or career growth with acquiring a managerial position is an old-fashioned view of career progress. Many talented employees may prefer to move laterally to other roles or be given a deeper set of responsibilities in their current position.
It is essential to understand an individual contributor's career aspirations and help attain them. Here is what your company's ICs need to thrive at their jobs:
1. Opportunities to grow
Individual contributors are keen to use their skill sets and creativity to the best of their ability. To that extent, companies should have a structured path for skill-based paths, like they would for managerial promotions.
The more an individual contributor demonstrates their abilities, the more responsibilities and autonomy they should have. Moreover, this needs to happen in a planned fashion and collaboration with the ICs themselves.
2. Training and development
Companies should provide individual contributors with clear options to deepen their skill sets or pick up new ones that can augment what they are currently doing. This can take the form of mentorship from senior experts, training courses, or even sponsoring a course or a diploma from an external source.
Individual contributors go all out to excel at the projects they pick up and deserve to be appreciated for it. Exemplary performance is not just about managing other people but also about personally accomplishing big things.
The employee who single-handedly closed a deal or designed the graphics for a new campaign is entitled to as much recognition as the business development or marketing managers up top.
How to show your support for the individual contributors in your workforce
Employees who are self-directed and can handle prominent roles competently are invaluable to any organization. It is essential to retain such people to prioritize their needs and create opportunities where their skills can shine, rather than boxing them in with managerial hopefuls. Here are some best practices to keep in mind.
1. Keep your communication lines open
The first step towards encouraging individual contributors is to talk to them about their plans and dreams, what they like about their current role, and any issues they face. You could also ask them if they want to transition from being an individual contributor to a manager.
This helps you collaboratively identify potential opportunities within the company or create new ones tailored to their skills and goals.
You should create time to emphasize to the employee that you are invested in giving them the opportunities they want to succeed, without any pressure on them to be managers.
2. Plan for their career development/growth
The assumption that a managerial position is the only promotion option for a talented employee is outdated. Once you have understood what your individual contributor's goals and interests are, it is time to create a defined growth path with more responsibilities, more learning opportunities, and suitable pay raises.
There are two main types of growth paths for individual contributors — the generalist path, where the employee gets to do multiple lateral shifts to explore interests across different departments, and the specialist path, where the employee is given training and opportunities to develop deep expertise in one specific field.
Communicate the options clearly, explaining what it takes to progress in each, the milestones they will have to achieve, and connecting them with other successful individual contributors for guidance wherever necessary.
3. Compensate them fairly
Monetary rewards are a big part of compensation, but there is much more to it than that. Your individual contributor needs to receive the greater ownership and autonomy necessary to perform the new role effectively, just as a manager would get.
There is little point in giving a contributor a role unless they can decide on it as they see fit. Your employee should be given room to explore, innovate and execute the projects, and be rewarded for them fairly too.
4. Focus on collective needs
The team's needs as a whole matter just as much as any individual's needs, which is where many individual contributors fall short, in that they focus more on their own tasks.
However, some individual contributors may demonstrate behaviors that make for good managers. Do they proactively use meetings to foster participation among everybody? Do they stay back and help other people if they have finished their work early?
Do they prefer to sit with the team to collaborate and brainstorm actively? Identify those individuals and then ask them about whether they would like a managerial promotion.
However, if they would prefer to be individual contributors, do not pressure them. The worst thing you can do for your team is giving them a manager who is reluctant to be one.
Accept your employees' choices and help them find opportunities instead of using their collaborative skills without necessarily having to be a 'boss.'
Over to you
An individual contributor with deep expertise and an eagerness to learn can be a valuable asset to any team. When hiring for an IC position, companies should look for qualities like technical expertise, self-reliance, ability to multitask, strong prioritization skills, ability to work to tight deadlines, and strong interpersonal skills.
Using a pre-employment assessment tool like Adaface, you can screen the best talent, ensuring a scalable, swift and efficient hiring process that reduces your time-to-hire by up to 80%.
Besides, the company should also provide the IC with a structured growth path that includes the learning opportunities they seek and the compensation and recognition they deserve. There are multiple kinds of excellence, and they all play a role in furthering a company's goals.
Treat your ICs with respect, and they will helm pivotal steps forward in your growth. What is important to remember is that individual contributors need their growth path to flourish at their job.