Employee Growth

How to Support Individual Contributors Who Don't Want to Be Managers

August 24, 2020
November 7, 2023
Catherine Tansey
Lattice Team

While management positions usually come with a salary bump, elevated title, and more seniority, they also mean more responsibility, longer hours, and increased stress. What’s worse, for employees who enjoy their work, moving to a managerial role also means less time actually doing what they love.

Career success looks different for everyone. The flattening of organizations has at once made climbing the corporate ladder more challenging, and been liberating for employees who are interested in a series of lateral moves or deepening their expertise.

But without the right messaging, individual contributors (ICs) may feel pressured to take on a managerial role, fearing it’s their only chance for promotion. The newly promoted manager then lacks confidence or feels unengaged because they are unprepared, uninterested, or overly challenged. By the time you discover the high-performer is unsatisfied, they’re already out the door. A lose-lose for all.

Like employees interested in climbing the ranks of management, ICs need learning opportunities, career development, and increased responsibility — along with the corresponding pay bump.

“To hold on to your best contributing talent, you have to have a real and valued individual contributor path that has defined opportunities extending beyond the level of an individual team,” said James Osborn, a technical leadership coach and mentor.

Not Everyone Wants to Be a Manager

At some point, a promotion to management became the de facto way forward in an organization. But managing people requires a completely different skill set than what it takes to be a high-performing contributor.

The Peter Principle demonstrates this well. Developed by Canadian sociologist Dr. Laurence J. Peter, the Peter Principle states that an employee will rise to their level of incompetence in an organization. Dr. Peter clarified that incompetence could be a lack of aptitude or a dearth of skills needed for success in that role, the latter of which we often see in organizations today.

Consider the case of an employee who excels at business development thanks to their interpersonal skills. They enjoy creating connections with others and helping companies solve their business problems. But this employee might not make a great manager because they shy away from confrontation and lack leadership ability. The skills they possess that make them great in business development aren’t necessarily aligned with what they need for success as a manager.

Some ICs might not aspire to manage others because they lack confidence in their abilities, while others are simply uninterested in the meeting-focused and consequence-laden day-to-day that comes with being a manager.

HR teams must find creative ways to promote ICs outside of the traditional management pathway — or risk losing them to another company.

What ICs Who Don’t Want to Manage Still Need

The idea that saying no to promotions is a one-way ticket to staying in one’s existing role forever is anachronistic. Rather, HR and company leaders are responsible for finding ways to nurture ICs and offer development opportunities aligned with their career goals.

Here’s what ICs who don’t want to be managers still need.

1. Opportunities to Grow

Offer employees opportunities to grow at your organization, or they’ll seek them elsewhere. Depending on an individual’s career goals, this could mean many things. “[It] could take the form of a company fellowship program where technical employees spend dedicated time focusing on furthering their knowledge, working on research, or developing a new product,” said Julie Jensen, Principal of Moxie HR Strategies, an HR consulting company.

Jon Hill, CEO of executive search and recruiting firm The Energists, advised thinking creatively about promotions. “It’s important to remember not every promotion has to involve a management or leadership role,” he said. “Consider a position that doesn’t include any management of other people, but still has more responsibilities, prestige, or seniority and higher pay than the standard role the person has excelled in.”

2. Training and Development

ICs often choose not to go into management because they love what they do. You can support ICs in deepening their expertise with company-sponsored training and development. Employees will feel invested in while learning new skills or furthering their expertise, which benefits the company as well.

A high-performing IC who doesn’t want to be a manager can still be a tremendous value to a company. Provide training and development to nurture their passions, develop their skills, and engage them in new and challenging ways. Employees who love what they do are often those who find creative solutions to difficult problems and can serve as subject matter experts internally and externally.

3. Recognition

At the intersection of creating a culture of recognition and supporting ICs is reevaluating the way you reward employees. In place of promotions to management for employees who are happy to remain ICs, provide opportunities for employees to take on new responsibility, share their expertise, and gain recognition.

“Give the individual contributor ownership responsibility over key projects rather than managerial responsibility over team members,” advised Brit Gould, VP of Product Marketing at Eko, a medical device company. “As they and their project succeed, give them visibility across the organization. Even small wins along the way can be worth celebrating,” he added.

Ways to Support ICs

Understand your high-performing ICs’ goals and create career opportunities around these ambitions to energize and engage your team members. Here are some effective ways to do this.

1. Communicating

Talk to your high-performing employees regularly to get a sense of their goals and ambition. Only by having an open dialogue, asking questions, and building trust will you be able to support them in growing at your company.

“We make it a point to get a better understanding of someone’s background and goals to see which direction the employee would like to head in,” said Dennis Theodorou, Managing Director of JMJ Phillip Group, an executive search firm. “As a company, we make it known that it is okay to only want to be an individual contributor. We want our employees feeling they could be successful either way.”

2. Creating a Plan

Once you understand an employee’s goals and career ambitions, create a growth plan with a clear path to progression at the company. Osborn noted that it’s common to see two promotion pathways outside of the management route: “There’s the expert in a deep area of technology, process, or systems, and the generalist who sits across a far wider area,” he said.

The generalist may be someone interested in a series of lateral career moves — for example, an employee who starts in operations and moves to marketing ops — while the expert may be an accomplished and highly skilled individual like a senior developer.

Communicating the options for career progression and growth is nearly as important as creating the alternatives. “This model is most effective when it's super clearly communicated,” Osborn said. “Get your IC path documented [and] make it public. Show the equivalence with various management roles and then get some exemplars in place to really bring it home.” 

3. Compensating Them

Provide opportunities for increased responsibility, like as program owners or project managers, and be prepared to financially reward employees. “To make this path a real alternative, it's got to match the management option. That means real decision-making authority, room to do the role, and corresponding compensation,” Osborn stressed.

Kimberly Porter, CEO of microfinance organization Microcredit Summit, said it’s up to HR to organize and establish alternative routes to seniority for ICs. “HR should facilitate continued learning opportunities and also create opportunities for pay increases and bonuses outside of managerial promotions,” she said.

The work world is rapidly changing, and companies need to be agile and adjust as necessary to keep up, which has never been more clear than during the past five months as we’ve collectively been navigating the coronavirus pandemic. As companies have pivoted essentially overnight to working remotely and work-life balance is emerging as a significant priority for employees, there’s another change that we need to recognize: Success looks different for everyone — those interested in management and those who wish to remain individual contributors alike.

Communicate with your valued individual contributors and find pathways forward for them at your organization. Then reward these employees with the recognition and compensation they’ve earned, without expecting them to take on roles they’re uninterested in or don’t have the skills to perform. We’re at our best when we can show up as we are and bring our full selves to the workplace. Support your individual contributors in doing just that by working to create a satisfying and productive career path for them at your company.