Secrets to support professionals who don’t want to climb the management ladder.

What do you call that professional you manage who doesn’t have line management responsibilities, who works as an individual but who contributes significantly to the goals and mission of your team and therefore the organisation?

There is a new phrase that is being used to describe the role of the senior professional who works without people management responsibilities. This is the ‘Individual Contributor’.

You may well have one of these in your team.  They are really skilled operationally or professionally. In fact they are probably indispensable to you.  The challenge for you as their manager is probably going to be to work out how to harness the value that such ‘Individual Contributors’ can make.  Just because they don’t want to move into management roles does not mean you can leave them to stagnate.  You need to look at their development path and opportunities very carefully or you may risk losing them.

One of the questions that HR departments struggle with is whether their development programmes are missing out support for some of these key individuals?  After all, because ‘Individual Contributors’ often have job titles that do not contain the title ‘Manager’ or ‘Director’ they may be overlooked when it comes to investment in developing these important team members within the organisation and as such a pool of people with potential and influence is at risk of being overlooked, side-lined and demotivated.

The phenomenon of influence shows us that it is not always linked to a person’s position in an organisational hierarchy.
I think that it is fair to say that a person’s position does not always define their contribution, nor does it give an indication of the person’s true influence on others. We have all found some individuals with big titles and yet in reality they are not always influential. We can sometimes find those who despite their titles do not make major contributions. The opposite is also true: there are some people without a managerial title who wield a significant amount of influence and make fantastic contributions, regardless of their title or role.

So contribution may be not simply defined by role or title. I’ve have found many such individuals who have preferred or chosen not to pursue management careers, but instead have followed their interest in a professional skills set. These people are the highly professional individual contributors. However, they exist across many organisations: sometimes it is the statistician in a think tank, the sector specialist in an insurance underwriting function, the software engineer in a high tech company, the key sales person in a sales team.

These ‘individual contributors’ might well need encouragement in your team. Given their level of contribution it would make sense to ensure that they feel highly valued.  Put a retention strategy to keep them and think about how you can go about harnessing their informal but effective influence.

You could be missing out on the opportunity to retain these key people, to help them be even more influential and to prepare a portion of them for key positions in the organisation. Losing them can be a huge and expensive blow to your business, but often they fail to show up on anyone’s radar screen.  So ensure they do on yours.

Top 6 takeaways to accelerate your success when developing individual contributors in your team

  1. Identify your individual contributors and encourage them to increase their sphere of influence for the good of the team
  2. Ensure in your 1:1s you have discussions with individual contributors to map out opportunities for development
  3. Make them feel valued but remember equity theory – don’t give preferential treatment
  4. Make it clear it’s fine not to want to go into management and up that proverbial ladder
  5. Encourage them to think laterally about how they can expand their experience
  6. Secondments, job rotation, job enrichment and mentoring can work really well as development tools as well as the other informal learning opportunities.

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