Climbing the Ladder: How to Successfully Move Individual Contributors to Management Roles

If you ask a number of people what success looks like, somebody is sure to mention climbing the proverbial ladder. After all, that’s become the norm in corporate America. You continue grasping rung after rung until you reach the top—which is usually a point when you’re leading and managing others.

But here’s the problem with this: not everybody wants to be a leader. Some people are much happier focusing on their own work, without being bogged down with all of the meetings, logistics, and administrative headaches that come with managing people.

Even further, some people just shouldn’t be leaders. They don’t have the know-how, personality, or desire to steer the ship, and would therefore be much more successful staying in an individual contributor role for the entirety of their career.

When it comes to developing new leaders, this can undoubtedly present a challenge for existing managers. How can they best identify those people who should be promoted to management roles? And, perhaps even more importantly, how can they best support them when those role shifts occur?

What is an Individual Contributor?

“What they have in common is that they have no one reporting to them, yet they make a big contribution and wield strong influence on the success of their firms,” explains Jack Zenger in his piece for Forbes.

For example, Zenger recounts a time he heard Michael Eisner speak when he was the President of Disney. “He talked about the importance of taking care of the people in organizations who make unique, pivotal contributions, and who are easy to overlook,” explains Zenger. For Eisner, he said, those people were Disney’s animators.

Obviously, these non-management roles play a critical part in the success of their organizations, and those who excel in these positions may eventually be moved up to leadership roles. However, some may be hesitant to move away from being an individual contributor—despite the fact that it’s always presented as a step up.

Why? Well, moving from an individual contributor to a manager is an undeniably large shift. “You need to accept that you’ve chosen a path that alters your relationship with those around you and with yourself,” explains Susan Gilell-Stuy, Managing Principal of Leadership Compound, of what new leaders need to do, “Throw away the playbook that got you where you are today, and swap it for one that gives you the ability to challenge your assumptions.”

That alone is a large enough change for someone who’s used to staying head down in his or her own work. However, stepping into a leadership role also involves a distinct evolvement in responsibilities.

When tasked with managing others, the work that person has grown so used to doing (and is likely even most passionate about) fades away in favor of attending meetings, overseeing budgets and timelines, and ensuring the success of others on his or her team.

Rand Fishkin provides a great breakdown of how the responsibilities differ between an individual contributor and management role:


Responsibilities of individual contributor vs. management - How to Successfully Move Individual Contributors to Management Roles

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So, when personal preferences can vary so greatly, how can you identify the people who are ready to make the switch?

How to Identify Leaders Amongst Individual Contributors

You can learn a lot just by observing. Oftentimes, leaders will naturally emerge in a group setting. “The best scenario is one where you hire someone as an individual contributor and they quickly emerge as the natural, self-selected leader for their team or department,” explains Ben Landers, President and CEO of Blue Corona, a five-time Inc. 5000 digital marketing and analytics company.

For this reason, the first thing you should be keeping your eyes peeled for is strong leadership skills. Who’s engaging in team meetings to help lead the discussion? Who is generating innovative ideas and developing plans to execute them? Who’s commanding the respect and loyalty of the team—despite not having the formal job title?

“I look for natural influencers. More than anything else, what determines whether an individual contributor should be promoted is leadership ability,” Landers continues, “The best managers don’t manage—they lead. They achieve results and win by influencing the attitudes, behaviors, and efforts of others. They usually emerge independent of title, rank, or seniority. They have an intuition about what motivates others and they leverage these insights for the benefit of the entire team.”

Here are a few other things that experts say you should look out for when deciding who should be promoted:

1. Excellence as an Individual Contributor

As you might suspect, if you promote a lackluster individual contributor to a management position, you’re probably going to end up with a lackluster manager at best.

“I want to see excellence as an individual contributor,” Landers says, “You can’t effectively manage and lead others if you can’t manage yourself.”

However, Landers is also quick to warn that this doesn’t necessarily mean selecting the obvious star of your team. “Managing oneself doesn’t mean being the best as an individual contributor,” he continues, “In fact, sometimes the best individual contributors struggle as managers. They struggle because it is hard to delegate tasks you can do better and faster on your own.”

Output is important. But, it’s not the only thing you should focus on. Instead, take some time to consider who’s already managing themselves, their time, and their work effectively.

“One key indicator that an employee has really come into their own is when they require less and less time to manage. They know what needs to be done and make sure it happens, they learn to spot opportunities and coordinate actions to seize them,” shares Brian Honigman in an article for Inc.


“I want to see that the success of the team is more important to them than their success as an individual.

2. A Focus on Collective Needs

“I want to see that the success of the team is more important to them than their success as an individual. The best leaders and managers are multipliers of talent,” Landers says, “They get intense satisfaction from building and developing a winning team. And they typically demonstrate this drive long before they’re formally put in charge.”

When looking at your individual contributors, one good test is to see how they react when they finish their work early. Do they pack up and head home? Do they work ahead on something that benefits them personally?

“People motivated by helping others will often turn and ask their coworkers how they can help or they’ll create a tool or resource that helps their coworkers get the job done faster next time,” Landers continues.

“The greatest failing in leadership, in my experience, occurs when one’s selfish interests take priority over the collective interests of the organization,” adds Dudley Slater, author of Fusion Leadership.

To discern whether or not an individual contributor is equally motivated by collective needs, Slater recommends asking yourself a few thought-provoking questions, such as:

  • When conducting a meeting, does the candidate use the meeting to demonstrate that he is the smartest person in the room or does he use the meeting to foster debate and identify the best path for the organization?
  • When crisis strikes, does the candidate take appropriate ownership or does she point the finger of blame? Conversely, when good things happen, does the candidate appropriately recognize others who contributed to the success?
  • As an individual contributor, has the candidate demonstrated a willingness to step outside of his job description to serve others, and thereby serve the mission of the organization?
  • Will the candidate argue that she deserves the corner office, secluded from those in her charge who are doing the real work? Or will the candidate argue that she should work side by side with her team in order to make them more successful?

“This simple test has governed every managerial hiring decision I ever made,” says Slater. And, he’s made plenty—having grown the business he co-founded (Integra Telecom) from startup to national prominence, ultimately employing over 2,500 people.

So, Slater knows the importance of putting a little bit of thought into finding someone who is team-focused. And moving away from a self-centric view is often one of the toughest parts of the transition for individual contributors.

“As a top individual contributor, you receive a lot more recognition and glory for yourself when you’re performing,” explains Hannah Nelson, who was promoted by Ben Landers to the role of Content Team Lead at Blue Corona. “As a team lead, I’m doing my job best when only my team members are shining in the spotlight, and not me. The biggest challenge I realized in this new role was realizing wins of individuals on the team were also wins I could celebrate in.”

3. A Thick Skin

Blunders are inevitable in a leadership role—particularly when you’re new to that sort of position. For that reason, you should also keep your eyes peeled for individual contributors who don’t crumble after failure or criticism.

“Thick skin is important because, as a manager, you’re going to screw up,” shares Landers, “People with thick skin can learn from the criticism that follows an error or lapse in judgement.”

“When an employee takes responsibility for a failure and uses it to become a better leader, it’s the first sign that he or she is ready for a promotion,” reinforces Lynda Foster in a piece for Forbes. “How someone handles and deals with setbacks and obstacles is a legitimate sign that they are willing to learn and will grow into the promotion you would like them to achieve.”


Even if an individual contributor displays all of the above traits, he or she is going to have to want to move up in order to make the transition successful.

4. A Desire to Move Up

Even if an individual contributor displays all of the above traits, he or she is going to have to want to move up in order to make the transition successful.

“One of the biggest mistakes I ever made is promoting people who were either not ready or not 100% committed to the new managerial role,” says Slater. “Commitment to a role can only come from the individual who fills that role. It cannot be purchased or cajoled.”

Typically, people who are interested in stepping into management positions will give plenty of indicators. Is he or she consistently taking on more work or asking for new challenges? Is she volunteering for leadership roles? Does he step in and help out colleagues? Does she always take ownership over her work?

And, perhaps most obviously, have you had conversations about his or her career goals during your one-on-one check-ins (which, by the way, are crucial for employee engagement)?

All of these can be solid signs that an individual contributor is not only ready, but eager to move into a management role.

How to Support New Leaders

The goal is to move people from individual contributors to managers. That’s just the way things work, right?

However, far too many organizations hand former individual contributors a fancy new job title and then throw them to the wolves and assume that they should be able to fend for themselves. After all, they should know what they’re doing at this point.

“Fully 89 percent of executives in this year’s survey rated the need to strengthen, reengineer, and improve organizational leadership as an important priority. Our findings suggest that organizations need to raise the bar in terms of rigor, evidence, and more structured and scientific approaches to identifying, assessing, and developing leaders, and that this process needs to start earlier in leaders’ careers,” says a summary of Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends Report.

Even further, on a larger scale, a study by the Center for Creative Leadership found that nearly 40% of new chief executives fail within their first 18 months of the job, and even more of them fail to live up to the expectations of those who hired them.

So, what’s the deal here? As that same study states, support is a crucial part of the learning process for new managers—and this is an area where many companies fall short:

Support is a crucial part of the learning process for new managers

 

Successfully developing leaders all starts with an adequate understanding of what goals they have for themselves. “Recognize the behaviors that you need to develop and invite trusted mentors and your boss into the process,” explains Gilell-Stuy of what new managers should do, “First by sharing the skills that you want to acquire and then by asking them for suggestions on how to go about doing it.”

From there, effective communication is another key piece of the puzzle—both with the new manager and the team he or she will be leading.

“We talked through different roles in that move and how that would best help the company and our clients,” explains Nelson of her own transition to a leadership role. “We had many conversations to share lessons and wins of previous new leaders, and continued to do so once I was in the role and faced with any challenge I wasn’t sure how to tackle.”

Additionally, real-time feedback can help new managers to discover what’s working well, what could be improved, and how to hone their own leadership style.

Finally, people who have been moved from individual contributors to managers should be armed with plenty of support and resources, but should also ultimately have the freedom and autonomy to try new things to improve the organization — whether it be process improvements, product enhancements, system modifications, or any other ideas they identified when they were more “in the weeds” as an individual contributor.

After all, being handed a paint-by-numbers approach to the position will be discouraging, and ultimately only stifle any creativity and ingenuity that could result from that person’s new role and outlook.

Wrapping Up

When moving individual contributors into management roles, it’s important that you first identify the people who would thrive in those sorts of positions, and then provide them the adequate support they need when transitioning into a leadership mindset.

However, not everybody is cut out to manage — and that’s perfectly alright. “You don’t want to take your best individual contributor and make them your worst leader because you forced them to manage others,” says Gilell-Stuy. “Leading others isn’t something everyone wants to do, and organizations need to respect this decision and provide ways that people can excel and be rewarded without having to lead.”

Perhaps that means allowing them to take on more challenging assignments. Or, maybe it involves instituting a formal recognition program to help those individual contributors celebrate their wins and accomplishments.

Regardless, your emphasis should be on ensuring that every single employee is able to feel engaged, fulfilled, supported, and recognized at work — whether they choose to move to the next rung of that ladder or not.


Author Bio:
Kat Boogaard (@kat_boogaard) is a Midwest-based writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. She is a columnist for Inc., writes for The Muse, is a career writer for The Everygirl, and a contributor all over the web.


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