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Developing individual contributors: Your secret weapon for growth

April 13, 2022 - 12 min read


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What is an individual contributor?

The top skills of effective individual contributors

Who is the next generation of individual contributors?

How to develop individual contributors

For a long time, growth within an organization meant that at some point, you’d be managing other people. The idea was that people who were successful in their roles would be the best ones to coach and develop other people.

However, decades of studies on management and leadership have proven that’s not the case. In fact, the skills that are necessary to be a great individual contributor are largely irrelevant to managing people. And, as a result, when they’re promoted individual contributors often fail to become great managers.

What’s been largely overlooked, however, is that not everybody wants to be a manager. While a managerial role has been seen as the surest way of building a career, more and more people are deciding not to become people managers. 

Leading others is undoubtedly worthwhile. But it also means cultivating a brand-new skill set — and less time spent doing the things that drew you to your field in the first place. Besides, people are complicated. As soon as you become a people manager, you lose the luxury of just ignoring peoples’ complications

Now, organizations are beginning to recognize the individual contributor role as a career path unto itself. That means building an equally rewarding career path for people who are leaders, but not necessarily managers.

Keep reading to understand the role of individual contributors and how you can hire, develop, and retain them.

What is an individual contributor?

Most entry-level roles are, by definition, individual contributors. The most basic definition is that an individual contributor doesn’t have management responsibilities for other people on the team.

However, although most entry-level roles are individual contributors, not every individual contributor role requires entry-level skills. In fact, many individual contributor roles are senior and specialized. They may require several years of experience, highly-developed skill sets, and subject matter expertise — even if they don’t involve managing others.

The nature of certain roles, like writers, developers, and software engineers, means that people management (and its administrative burden) would take them away from their primary tasks — and their most valuable skills. These people may provide more value as craftspeople or subject matter experts working hands-on in their roles, than they would in a management position.

What is the difference between an individual contributor and a manager?

The primary difference between managers and individual contributors is that managers have direct reports. Managerial roles generally involve regular one-on-one meetings with their team members. They also involve coaching performance, providing feedback, and hiring new employees.

Although they don’t have direct reports to manage, ICs often take on certain tasks that are traditionally considered management responsibilities. These might include designing workflows, delegating responsibilities, and leading projects.


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The top skills of effective individual contributors

In order to develop and retain ICs, companies are asking: What does it take to be an effective individual contributor? Feeling fulfilled in any role requires more than just clocking in and clocking out. While the specifics are — of course — different for each job title, here are 7 competencies that effective ICs tend to have in common:

1. Passion for the work

If you love what you do every day, chances are you won’t feel quite as fulfilled in a managerial role. In fact, one of the top reasons people don’t want to become managers is that they’re happy in their jobs. Almost universally, taking on a manager title means less time spent in the trenches.

2. Intrinsically motivated

There’s a reason so many job descriptions are ISO the perfect self-starter. People who are self-starters are more productive and therefore, much easier to manage. 

But the real magic of motivation lies beneath the surface. When someone is intrinsically motivated — that is, when the work is its own reward — the impact goes well beyond productivity. Intrinsic motivation is linked to higher job satisfaction, retention, self-efficacy, and resilience.

3. Interpersonal communication

Teams have certainly learned that if you’re working on your own, the ability to reach out to others is critical. Independent contributors thrive when they’re adept at building and maintaining relationships — both on their teams and cross-functionally.


4. Asking the right questions

In entry-level roles, employees tend to have a lot of oversight and support. But as career independent contributors, these professionals need to advocate for themselves. That means ICs must know how (and be willing) to ask for help, seek clarity, and get guidance. It also means that they feel comfortable asking for more resources, information, and support when needed.

5. Influence

By virtue of their experience and skill, ICs are de facto leaders on a team. While they may not be on the management track, they often mentor and support other contributors. Their credibility and influence often help generate enthusiasm and buy-in for group goals.

6. Connect the dots

On one level, the day-to-day tasks just are what they are. But to build a career, it’s important to understand how these tasks connect to the big picture. Individual contributors should understand how their day jobs impact the organization’s larger goals.

7. Curiosity 

One of the best parts of an individual contributor role is the ability to get really, really good at what you do. You can only develop that kind of craftspersonship and mastery through deliberate practice. The best craftspeople have a beginner’s mindset, constantly looking to learn more and stay on their edge.

Who is the next generation of individual contributors?

As companies grow, there’s a hard truth that they have to face. If the only way for your team to grow with you is to become a manager, you’re going to have to make some tough decisions.

There are — by definition — less managers than there are individual contributors. That’s not a bad thing. After all, statistics show that not everyone wants to be a manager anyway. That means organizations can turn their attention away from the traditional model of developing managers and toward developing leaders.

As the future of work comes into sharper focus, framed by the Great Resignation, the values of the workforce are becoming clear. The next generation of leaders want to have meaning in the work they do, and flexibility in how they do it. In short, they’re likely more primed than any other generation in history to thrive as individual contributors.


How to develop individual contributors

Understanding how to reward someone for their skills without promoting them to manager requires a bit of a mindset shift. Here are 5 ways to develop individual contributors.

1. Create “senior” titles

Although they may not be interested in becoming managers, ICs still want to be recognized for their experience. Developing job descriptions (and salaries to match) that reflect their expertise can help them shine. 

Individual contributors might also appreciate the opportunity to flex their leadership skills as project managers. Giving them ownership over a new initiative allows them to build working relationships and recognition within the larger team. 

2. Ask them what they want

While many individual contributors don’t want to become managers, that’s certainly not true for all of them. Take time to have career planning conversations with them. Learn how they see their careers developing and what skills they want to make better use of.

3. Provide resources for growth

One reason ICs struggle to jump into leadership roles is because they don’t have any formal training to become leaders. Whether they’re on track for a management role or not, offer opportunities for development. Provide both continuing education to sharpen their skillsets and a new manager development program for first-time supervisors. 

4. Manage belonging — and burnout, too

BetterUp’s research shows that managers feel a greater sense of belonging at work than individual contributors. But that doesn’t just mean they feel more comfortable — it means that they feel more productive, confident, and happier too. On the other hand, ICs (who may feel pressure to try to stand out) have higher turnover rates and feel less valued in their roles.

5. Provide coaching

Traditionally, companies only offered coaching to executives and leaders — and it was usually an attempt to “fix” something. When you understand the value that ICs bring to a company, you can confidently provide coaching to every person within your organization. BetterUp’s research shows that companies begin seeing the benefits of coaching throughout their organizations within just a couple of months.

Final thoughts

Individual contributors may not be managers, but their skills and dedication are the secret weapon of any successful company. Investing in their long-term grown — whether by recognizing them for individual contributions or providing them with opportunities to grow — develops the depth of expertise on your team.

You can only have but so many managers — but you can develop a nearly endless supply of highly-skilled, motivated professionals. Look deeper than job title when identifying leadership within your organization.

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Published April 13, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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