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Individual contributors can be leaders too

Caeleigh MacNeil contributor headshotCaeleigh MacNeil
February 8th, 2024
7 min read
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Becoming a manager isn’t the only way to grow your career. Learn seven concrete ways to help individual contributors develop leadership skills and make an impact on your team—without pressuring them to become managers.

Historically, becoming a manager was a clear indicator of career growth. When you performed well at your job, you were promoted to manage a team. Simple as that. 

But this traditional career trajectory fails to account for one important fact: Not everyone wants to be a manager, and that’s ok. Great individual contributors are just as valuable as great managers. They’re true experts and leaders in their own right—people your team can rely on to solve problems and provide on-the-ground guidance. ICs don’t manage other people, but they can still drive positive change at your organization. 

To help individual contributors thrive, we need to focus less on developing managers—and start creating leaders instead. 

What is an individual contributor? 

An individual contributor is an employee who contributes to your team but doesn’t manage other people. Called ICs for short, individual contributors aren’t always entry-level workers. They’re often workers who have developed specialized skills over many years, like software engineers, animators, or expert salespeople. And while ICs don’t manage other people, they can still be leaders—driving projects and providing expert guidance to your team. 

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Individual contributors vs. managers: What’s the difference? 

A company needs both individual contributors and managers to get things done. Managers are essential in order to provide high-level strategy, remove blockers, and ensure employees have the support and resources they need to accomplish their goals. They give their team a direction for their work, provide 1:1 coaching, and help connect the dots between cross-functional teams

Thanks to managers, individual contributors can focus on the specialized work they were hired to do—rather than on career coaching and mentorship. ICs are the ones who produce work and execute projects, like coding an app or writing a blog post. As a result, they often spend less time in meetings than managers do. Instead, people in individual contributor roles need long blocks of uninterrupted focus time to accomplish their tasks. 

Different roles, different skill sets

The skills you use as an IC are very different from the skills required to be a manager. Becoming a great manager takes training. It’s a skill set you need to learn and build, similar to how a writer needs to hone their craft over time to produce better work. And while individual contributors focus on specific skills within their area of expertise, managers need to build broader skills like communication, conflict resolution, strategic thinking, and emotional intelligence

This is important to remember when promoting ICs to people management. Just because someone is an expert designer or programmer doesn’t mean they’re ready to start managing a team right away. Instead of just promoting ICs who excel at their craft, you need to provide proper training so new managers have the skills they need to be successful.

Not everyone wants to be a manager

Traditionally, a standard career path often goes something like this: An individual contributor excels at their day job, gets promoted to manager, and proceeds to climb the corporate ladder—managing larger and larger teams until they finally become a director or business executive. That’s how we’ve defined success in the past, and as a result many individual contributors feel pressured to take on managerial roles. They feel like becoming a manager is the only avenue for growth, even if they enjoy their work as an IC more.

The truth is, not everyone wants to be a manager—and that’s ok. Thanks to their specialized skills, senior ICs can be just as valuable to your team as project leaders and subject matter experts. They can use their experience to guide team members and solve complex issues within their specialty, leaving you free to focus on high-level strategy instead. 

In an ideal world, all companies would have growth tracks for ICs who don’t want to be managers—so individual contributors could continue to develop their skill sets and grow in their careers without feeling forced into managerial roles. And while it isn’t always possible to change the role structures of your company, you can still help ICs gain valuable experience and grow in their careers. The secret is to focus on leadership rather than management. 

Leadership vs. management

Leadership and management are two different things. According to Asana co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, “management is operational; it’s about setting priorities, evaluating priorities, hiring and firing decisions, compensation decisions, things like that.” These are very specific (and important) skills that all managers need. 

On the flip side, leadership is more about inspiring your team, helping them grow, and helping your peers solve problems. And even though individual contributors don’t manage a team, they can still become leaders that inspire their peers and drive positive change in your organization. 

Read: Leadership vs. management: What’s the difference?

Individual contributors as leaders: A path for growth

You don’t have to have the job title “manager” to be a great leader. Here’s how to help your ICs develop leadership skills and grow in their careers. 

1. Ask individual contributors what they want

First things first—to help ICs develop their careers, you have to know what their long-term goals and motivations are. Everyone is different, and it’s ok if your team members’ goals don’t match your own. Some people may want to grow into a managerial position, some want to specialize in their craft, some want to be part of a team, and others just want a stable and supportive work environment. These are all totally valid motivations that require different types of career development. In other words, you have to know what ICs want so you can help them grow in the way they want to. 

2. Be transparent

Different individual contributor roles have different definitions of success. For example, an IT professional can be successful by providing quality tech support for employees, while a sales associate can be successful by closing significant business deals. For every IC role, it’s important to define expectations and plot a clear path for growth. That way, employees know exactly what they need to do in order to perform well at work. 

Some companies do this by creating “success guides” for each role. Success guides define key responsibilities for a position, then break those responsibilities up into different role levels. For example, a level one software engineer might be responsible for completing development tasks, while a level four software engineer might also be responsible for planning and coordinating complex development projects. With this system, it’s important for ICs to understand what their current level is, plus the competencies required to move to the next level. 

3. Create areas of responsibility

At Asana, we assign team members specific “areas of responsibility”—topics for which they’re the ultimate decision maker. Called AoRs for short, areas of responsibility give team members who aren’t in management roles the opportunity to grow as leaders and take ownership of specific business areas—like onboarding, internal documentation, or customer partnerships. We encourage AoR holders to develop a deep knowledge of their area, so they can solve problems, answer questions, and make key decisions when needed.

For example, imagine you work in IT and one of your team members is responsible for managing software updates. As the AoR owner, they’re in charge of communicating software updates to company employees, answering questions about upcoming updates, troubleshooting issues, and keeping internal software documentation up to date. When software updates occur, they’re a leader your team (and the company) can look to in order to ensure things go smoothly. 

4. Help ICs become mentors

Leaders are people who inspire and guide their peers. Becoming a mentor is a great way to develop these qualities without the added responsibility of managing another person. For ICs who want to become managers later in their careers, it’s also an opportunity for them to practice key management skills like interpersonal communication, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution. 

Mentorship comes in many different forms. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some ideas to provide mentorship opportunities for ICs on your team: 

  • Assign a mentor for each new hire: A new hire’s mentor meets with them regularly and is typically a peer on their team—in other words, someone they can talk to aside from their manager, so they have space to bring up issues in a low-pressure environment. 

  • Pair more experienced ICs with less experienced ICs: If you don’t have any new hires on your team, you can also pair up team members based on their experience. For example, you could encourage an employee with many years of experience to partner with a newer employee on a project, provide feedback on their work, or just meet for coffee once a month to talk about career goals. 

5. Provide project management opportunities

Leading and managing projects is a great way for ICs to expand their skill set and learn to work with cross-functional partners outside their team. Project management helps build soft skills like communication and problem-solving, plus hard skills like budgeting and stakeholder management. Leading projects encourages ICs to take ownership of something, which in turn can help them become more confident and engaged at work. 

If ICs haven’t led projects before, you’ll need to put in a bit of extra effort to help guide them through their first one. However, that initial investment can help employees acquire the confidence and know-how they need to tackle even more complex initiatives in the future. As a result, you’ll have someone you can delegate projects to if you’re feeling overwhelmed with management responsibilities down the line. 

Read: Everything you need to know to become a project manager

6. Focus on learning

Individual contributors have a unique opportunity to become experts in their specific fields. Instead of splitting their time managing different individuals, they can dive deep into their work and practice their skills on a daily basis. Individual contributors who don’t want to become managers can focus on deepening their knowledge instead—either through on-the-job experience, learning and development courses, conferences, or peer-to-peer conversations. As a result, they can become experts and teachers that other team members can rely on.  

Read: What is a professional development plan (PDP)? 6 steps to create one

7. Recognize successes

Becoming a manager is just one avenue for success. When ICs don’t want to pursue a management position, focus on helping them make an impact—and ensure they get plenty of recognition when they do. For example, if an IC manages a successful project, specifically call out their individual contribution to your team, cross-functional stakeholders, and organization as a whole. 

This helps ICs feel like their expertise is still valued, even if they’re not a manager. It also helps break the “management track=success” stereotype by demonstrating that an IC’s work can have just as much impact as a manager’s work. As a result, you can boost retention on your team, improve working relationships with your ICs, and build a stronger team culture

Gen Z: The next generation of individual contributors

Gen Z is the latest generation to enter the workforce, and they come with new norms, ideas, and relationships to technology. Learn how you can help these young workers succeed—plus how their ideas can benefit all workers, old and young. 

Anatomy of Work Special Report: What Gen Z needs from leaders right now

As more members of Gen Z enter the working world, is your organization prepared to set them up for success? Download this ebook to find out.

What Gen Z needs from leaders right now ebook banner image

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