They outnumber leaders in any organization by a large margin.
They satisfy customers, negotiate with suppliers, create and support innovation and provide the manpower for the most pressing business strategies.
The exceptional ones visibly demonstrate skills in the key high-performance imperatives of influence, personal effectiveness, collaboration, and building stakeholder loyalty.
Yet, we have no clue how to deal with their aspirations. Or more specifically, their non-aspiration to become the much-hyped leader!
I am referring to the Individual Contributor.
Of all the irritating stereotypes, this is the most destructive in an organization. We are apologetic at best, and disdainful at worst to this least understood, most valued and hopelessly misused group.
Question. Should we only think about advancing the careers of such individuals by moving them into manager positions? And then do them a disservice by confusedly asserting that they do not have leadership skills to be there, when we are the ones with blinkers on?
Today is an era of flat organizational structures to reduce costs and get more nimble. Management positions are getting fewer and rarer – so let us say thanks to the numerous professionals who opt for individual contributor roles. And recognize and salute the strengths they bring to the organization.
Individual contributors hold the key and wield tremendous influence on how an organization realizes its business strategy or sinks in its underperformance. Many of them will step up effortlessly to informal leadership roles, managing parts of a process, function or workgroup, and the high performers will be the ‘make-or-break’ stitch with their unique expertise.
Is it possible to be both an individual contributor and a leader? I would say “Yes.” And “YES”!
Let us see. What are the broad leadership competencies we tout and shout about?
Maintaining effectiveness in leading and dealing with change?
The individual superman does this everyday in his work responsibilities and environment. She adjusts efficiently to work within new work structures, processes, requirements, and cultures. But of course, they do not trumpet it in status reports.
Taking accountability for customer loyalty?
She exceeds customer needs by building productive relationships. Clients stake their continued relationship with an organization based on his very presence.
Engage stakeholders to make them understand, accept and retain critical messages?
He clearly conveys information and ideas through a variety of media to diverse stakeholders in a manner that convinces critical audiences for their voluntary buy-in. She personably and inspiringly influences her team toward the completion of goals.
Conceptualize strategic solutions, and display execution excellence to successfully close the last mile?
The individual star anticipates, identifies and understands both challenges and opportunities. She brilliantly culls data from different sources to draw conclusions and make efficient decisions. He factors facts, constraints, and probable consequences with telling precision.
Draw a meticulous roadmap for oneself and slot the stakeholders’ roles for successful closure of goals and objectives?
Our individual topper is very aware that he can shine only if he opens the canals of collaboration. And she does so with a sure belief in teamwork.
The conviction and responsibility must come from both sides. Individuals must believe in and explore ways to build credibility through developing expertise, demonstrating values, and articulating a vision. Organization leadership should move out of its comfort zone to provide ‘feel-proud’ career advancement opportunities to such key individuals through credible specialist and expert ranks.
The traits of well-rounded and integrated leadership are a fine balance of essence and form. It matters not if my role is that of an individual contributor or a manager to demonstrate both character (essence) and competence (form). Peter Drucker’s incisive insight on this may well be our lodestar. “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, and raising performance to a higher standard”