Success in the corporate world means climbing the ladder all the way up to management — or at least that’s how the business books make it look. But as employees across a variety of industries, whether in sales, engineering, production, or creation, have found, being a standout contributor and a world-class manager are two completely different things.
Lots of stellar employees make great leaders. But some don’t, and still more aren’t happy being a step removed from the hands-on work they enjoy day-to-day.
For these workers, making a switch off the management track and back into an individual contributor (IC) role is what makes sense. These moves can raise questions, though — Is it a step back? Will I be perceived as a failure? — that make candidates (and their employers) nervous. But when handled correctly, transitions from leadership to IC roles can pay dividends across the board. Here’s how, from both sides of the table.
If you’re an employee looking to make the leap back into being an individual contributor, you’ve likely already given some thought to what it is that the IC role offers. And whether that’s personal satisfaction from spending more time doing the actual work you enjoy, or work-life balance issues such as fewer meetings or less travel, you’ve got a handle on what would make the move rewarding.
But once you know what you’re hoping to get out of the switch, spend some time fleshing out what the transition can mean for your firm — and then write it down.
“Candidates and employees need to make their case and document it, framing all arguments in bullet points with data supporting those points,” advised John Pohl, a career coach with extensive experience working with clients looking to transition back into IC positions.
Pohl said employees should make the case for how their new position will benefit the company, and provide concrete examples that can give their employer a reason to say yes.
“You should be communicating clearly, ‘I want to be of best value to the company and this is why, and this is how I can make a bigger contribution,” Pohl said.
Following a nontraditional path can be scary — but, experts said, don’t let that hold you back from the future you want.
“What I learned while making my career shift is that a role change from manager to an individual contributor is not a ‘downgrade,’ as I initially thought, but an opportunity for growth filled with new opportunities,” said Ana Casic, Media Relations Coordinator for online training software site TalentLMS, and a veteran of a mid-career shift from management to a contributor role herself. “Released from the stress of having all those [managerial] responsibilities, you can expect a blast of creativity and a constant stream of new ideas.”
For some, the return to the joy and satisfaction they found in their work prior to assuming a management position is its own reward.
“The best part is, you’re having fun and actually enjoying what you do. Doing something for the first time and starting from zero — even though you already built something — is a place filled with play, excitement, and ideas,” said Casic. “I recommend it 100%.”
The news that a member of the management team wants to step back isn’t always welcome. But according to Scott Miller, EVP of Thought Leadership at time management and training firm FranklinCovey and author of Management Mess to Leadership Success, companies need to look at the bigger picture.
“When someone wants to make this kind of change, it should be treated with great reverence and respect,” Miller said.
Furthermore, Miller advised getting to the root cause of why the employee wants to make this change in the first place. If it’s a case of imposter syndrome or someone who needs some additional support to thrive, then this is the time to find out, he said. But if the employee truly wants to switch, it should be on the table.
“You don’t want to talk someone into staying,” Miller cautioned. Employees who are talked into staying in a job they don’t want generally end up leaving the company altogether. To hold onto a valued employee’s talents and experience, he said, firms should make it company policy to allow for moves beyond the standard progression.
“You want to have a culture where it’s safe to step back,” said Miller.
Part of creating that kind of culture could be building in formal paths for employees who want to get back into the field, Casic said.
“What helped me the most was a carefully crafted training program and an abundance of learning opportunities,” she said. “Companies should have a re-skilling initiative and offer continuous learning to support horizontal development within the company.”
A bigger question employers need to ask is whether or not their company is prioritizing the right things when it comes to management, Miller said.
“Most organizations structurally are set up so the only way to earn more money, get more resources, and have more influence is to lead a team,” said Miller. “Companies promote the highest-producing employees, [for example], the best art directors or sales leaders. But most of the time, their competencies, skills, and talents are inversely correlated.”
In practice, some of the qualities that make individual contributors excel — a salesperson’s keen sense of competition, an art director’s creative exploration, an engineer’s single-minded focus on the problem at hand — work against them in leadership, where overseeing employees, setting timelines, and working toward the team’s success are the priorities.
“Institutionally, this is really poor alignment,” noted Miller. “Too often, organizations have perpetuated the idea that everyone should be a leader. But not everyone should.”
According to Miller, confusing on-the-job excellence with leadership ability hurts your organization in two ways: It removes your most talented people from doing what they do best, and, if and when they leave their management positions, it decimates the leadership pipeline.
“Be very thoughtful on how you are recruiting people in leadership roles,” he said. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Making the move from management back to IC is far from being a demotion. It may not be the industry standard, but it can be a path to more fulfilled and engaged employees and a more functional and thriving workplace. And that’s an outcome everyone can get behind.