Is everyone meant to lead? Why individual contributors (ICs) deserve your attention

May 16, 2022

There’s long been this perception among small businesses that you can’t afford to not have people leaders at your company if you’re looking to grow. Is this wrong? Well, no – but they aren’t the be-all end-all to the success of a scaling business. What do I mean by this?

For a long time, growth within an organization meant that at some point, everyone would eventually lead other people. But the world of work is changing and businesses have been moving toward flat hierarchical structures for a while now, one where individual contributors (ICs) are just as valuable (and necessary) in driving success. It also means that the definition of leadership is changing – where you don’t have to be a people leader or manager, in order to be a business leader. 

So, let’s talk about why it’s important to give individual contributors the space to grow in your business, and how to reimagine your internal structure for both types of workers to thrive. 

Honing in on high performers (HiPo) 

High-performing employees are every company’s dream – their output is high, their passion is next level, and they’re always looking to improve. They are skilled employees who will thrive when effectively managed. 

High performers have leadership skills and a clear path they plan to follow, but not every path will be toward people management

The first step here is to define what a high performer looks like at your company, and how you distinguish if someone is meeting or exceeding your expectations. At Humi, we’re creating leadership principles that align leadership traits across the business. These principles demonstrate how any people leader at Humi lives our values, and give expectations around:

  • How we handle conflict 
  • How we communicate feedback – good, bad, and ugly
  • How we expect managers to show inclusive behaviours
  • How decisions are made to reduce bias

These are just some of the ways our leadership principles outline the behaviours we expect of our people to be a leader and a people leader. And having those standards set in place allows us to develop our high performers, whether they’re interested in taking the people leadership path or are focusing on individual contribution and deepening their subject matter expertise. 

Individual contributors vs. people managers: key differences

As the name implies, individual contributors are professionals who contribute to a team or organization but do not manage others. But while they might not be managers, their specialized skills and dedication are incredibly valuable to the teams they’re a part of. 

The primary difference between individual contributors and people managers is that people managers have direct reports. Although they don’t have direct reports to manage, individual contributors can take on traditional management responsibilities like leading projects, owning processes, and managing internal and external stakeholders. 

Career progression: building the path for both

Understanding how to reward someone without promoting them to a people manager role requires a bit of a mindset shift. So, here are a few pointers for creating the space for this avenue of development. 

Ask them about their goals 

While not all individual contributors are interested in managing people, that’s not always the case. Spend time talking about career plans with your people to learn what skills they want to make better use of as they grow at your company, and whether that means leading people or not. 

It’s always important to make sure you’re asking about time-bound goals; knowing someone doesn’t want to lead people or own a process in the next 1-2 years may impact hiring plans. When learning about career goals, try to discuss a timeframe, too.

Provide resources for growth

A false assumption is that individual contributors are not leaders. Leadership is the ability to influence others, and individual contributors can be substantially better at what they do when they possess the right interpersonal and leadership skills.

Providing your individual contributors with clear options to deepen their skills or adopt new ones is key for their development. This can exist in the form of mentorship from senior experts, external courses, or even sponsoring further education. 

We want Humigos to feel confident about improving efficiency and productivity, and encourage them to constantly find new ways to help them advance in their career. That’s why all permanent, full-time or part-time, employees are given an annual professional development budget of $500 to contribute to their professional development. 

Plan for their career development

Once you understand what your individual contributor’s goals and interests are, it’s time to create a defined career plan with responsibilities, opportunities, and compensation changes. I am often asked about Humi’s approach to annual adjustments and adjustments that support an individual’s promotion. Humi adjusts compensation based on merit (not cost of living), and always provides consideration when someone is promoted (because… the law).  

There are two main growth paths here – the generalist path, where the employee moves laterally to explore interests across different departments, and the specialist path, where they are given the training and opportunities to deepen their expertise in one specific area. Communicate both options and their progress clearly, and what milestones the individual contributor will need to achieve to be successful in either path. 

Are they ready to lead? Three red flags to watch out for.

Just because an employee tells you they want to make the step to becoming a people manager doesn’t mean they’re ready. We often forget that a key piece of being a good leader means you’ve demonstrated the ability to be a good follower. If your company doesn’t have a clear IC career path, your employees may feel the only way to grow their career is through people management. Here are a few red flags that indicate they need to spend more time working on themselves, before they explore becoming a people manager. 

They only care about themselves

Someone who is exhibiting this trait isn’t interested in the bigger picture or aligning with organizational objectives. They’re zeroed in on their individual performance and are not interested in uplifting their team members to accomplish common goals. 

They talk more than they listen

Yes, supervisors must have strong communication skills, but they must also prioritize listening to the views and opinions of their peers. This might look like: constantly speaking over others, always being the first to respond to a question in a group setting, or failing to show active listening skills.

They can’t separate their personal feelings

There’s nothing wrong with developing friendships in the workplace, but an effective people manager can’t assign tasks and offer feedback solely based on their personal relationships with their colleagues. A certain amount of objectivity must be shown; this isn’t only important for relationship building, but for decision-making ability, too. 

Risks if you don’t build an individual contributor (IC) path

Individual contributors may not be managers of people, but their skills and dedication are crucial to the success of your business because of their ability to manage processes and projects, instead. In fact, without investing the time and resources into their long-term growth, you’re risking a lot. 

Turnover

People leave managers, not companies. If the only path upward is to become a people manager and leadership is saturated with those who aren’t interested in leading or simply aren’t fit to lead, you run the risk of losing top talent. 

In the same vein, without the proper support to hone in on their specialties and sharpen their skillset, individual contributors will simply seek work elsewhere, taking key company knowledge and the potential to thrive in their specialized area with them. 

Stunted business growth

I’ll say it again – individual contributors are powerhouses of specialized skill and knowledge. If there’s high turnover at your company and you’re spending your time and resources constantly bringing new people in without developing your internal structure, the perceived growth opportunity will always seem limited. 

Final thoughts

As the future of work comes into sharper focus, the values of the next generation of workers are becoming clear. The new wave of talent wants to have meaning in the work they do, and the flexibility in how they do it. 

People managers have the privilege to impact people's careers, whether that means they will guide them to becoming people managers themselves or focused on an individual contributor career path. When building your organizational levels, save yourself the headache of losing out on top talent by building out your IC career levels. Take the privilege of career building seriously so you can learn, grow, and create spaces to do great work together. 

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Hey there 👋 my name is Andrea Bartlett.

I’m the Director of HR at Humi, and I’m obsessed with all things people and human resources. Throughout my time working in a range of industries, I’ve learned that one thing is clear: the world of work is changing and HR professionals are leading the charge. 

I believe that businesses should know their people as well as they know their product. But people are complex, and the solutions aren’t always easy. That’s how Think with Humi will help. 

Written by me, this newsletter is designed to give you insight into the relevant and raw people challenges, and give you the tools to enable you to continuously to shape the future of work. 

Written by a people leader, for people leaders.