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Forgotten Leaders in Organisations: Individual Contributors

Too many cooks may spoil the broth.

Is it possible that too many managers could have a detrimental effect in our organisations?

According to Harvard Business Review, not only can managers account for 33% of the company payroll, they also deliver far less in production.

Neither of these are positive outcomes; however this post is not about bashing managers and executive teams. Leadership matters and gifted managers can, and do, enable life-changing growth for their team-members.


There’s a weird dynamic that exists in organisations, from the smallest startup to the largest corporate, and that is that people perceive career growth to only exist on the management track. The role of the individual contributor seems relegated to “second best” in the career building stakes.

This is a major problem, and this post is about looking at a different way of doing things.

If management is the only way up, we’re all f’d

So says Rand Fishkin, ex-CEO of Moz in his straight-talking way. (By the way, we’ll be quoting a lot of Rand in this post.)

And he should know, having built Moz from a micro startup of just himself and his Mom to an organisation that scaled quickly to approximately 140 people after raising a funding round. (As of this post last year, Moz employed 160 people.)

Firstly, the hard truth is that not everyone is cut out to be a manager (or “people wrangler” is the term Rand uses).

There’s no shame in this when we think that different people have different talents. The problem with the perception that people can only grow their careers by becoming managers however is that people who may have astounding talents to offer, but not be great managers, feel like a failure or internalise not being good enough by being an IC.

The second problem is that the current model where career growth is only available to people on the management track is that everyone is incentivised to request promotions to manage other people. There is no consideration of whether this is the best way forward for the individual or the organisation.

Rand’s feelings on this scenario must ring true for nearly every founder or leader dealing with these requests.

“I worry today when an individual contributor is great at their job and expresses an interest in people management. I worry that some significant portion of that expressed desire doesn’t come from a true passion for the responsibilities of people managing, but instead exists because they want to level up their career and/or influence and believe this to be the only path.”

Understanding the different responsibilities Individual Contributors and Managers fulfil

Successful organisations, no matter their size, need a workforce that’s motivated and high-performing, and made up of ICs and managers.

To illustrate the different responsibilities and roles, between Individual Contributors and managers, Rand created this diagram.

Individual Contributors, ICs,Rand Fishkin, Moz, manager, management, company culture

Source: Rand Fishkin: Different responsibilities and roles, between ICs and Managers

To state the obvious, the differences between individual contributors and managers are immediately transparent. It’s also clear that every organisation has to have a strong cohort of ICs to get the work done and drive the company forward.

But how is it possible to maintain a strong individual contributor when the only way up is by becoming a manager?

Expand the definition of leadership

In any organisation, individual contributors are the people closest to the work.

Michael Eisner’s, President of Disney in the 1980s, spoke about the need to care for people who make unique contributions in their roles, but are easy to overlook. “In Disney,” he said, “these people are our animators.”

We can all quickly imagine where Disney would be without its animators.

It’s also worthwhile to remember Malcolm Gladwell’s words about the “experienced expert”. In order to reach this status, people need to invest many hours into their skill. And it’s these experts who define the success of any organisation.

It’s necessary then to expand the definition of what a leader is in an organisation; this role shouldn’t only defined by managing other people.

Once individual contributors are seen as leaders too thanks to the value of their work, it will be possible to create another method of career growth for employees.

If people feel their contribution is recognised and valued equal to the contribution a manager makes, there’s no longer the pressure to hop on the management track as the only path to career growth.

That’s good news for companies and good news for individuals who may be “high professionals” rather than “high potentials”.

Just ask this guy.

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