Choosing Between a Individual Contributor and Managerial Role

Posts, Building Your Product Career

By: Colleen Millerman, Senior Director, Product and Strategic Program Management

You’ve been offered what feels like a great opportunity – a promotion, a bigger title, more people to manage…. wait manage people? What does that mean? How does this work? Is my job the same? Is this my only opportunity for growth?

At some point in our careers, we find ourselves at a crossroads, facing a pivotal decision that can shape our professional journey. Often, we leap into a decision without really understanding the challenges, or opportunities that sit along each path. Choosing between two distinct paths: continuing as an individual contributor or stepping into the role of a people manager is a big decision and one that should be thoroughly discovered.

Let’s start with some basics – a quick comparison of an individual contributor path or the management path.

Individual Contributor Path

Opportunities

  1. Deep Expertise: You can dive into your chosen field, becoming a recognized expert. Contributing your specialized knowledge can significantly impact projects and the team’s success.
  2. Focus on Deliverables: If you love seeing a project through completion and checking the box, you can channel your energy into completing tasks and projects assigned to you. The clarity of focus you contribute can lead to high-quality work and timely deliverables.

Challenges

  1. Limited Leadership Exposure: Potentially within an individual contributor role you can get less exposure to leadership and strategic decision-making. You can mitigate this by seeking opportunities to collaborate with leaders and provide the expertise that’s needed for higher-level-decision making.
  2. Career Progression: Oftentimes this path will depend more on the technical skills of an individual than their leadership abilities. Some organizations, simply do not have a growth path for individual contributors. You can work with your manager to define this career path and emphasize how your technical expertise aligns with organizational needs.

Skills Needed:

  • Technical Proficiency
  • Problem-Solving
  • Time Management
  • Adaptability
  • Communication Skills
  • Attention to Detail
  • Taking Initiative
  • Collaboration
  • Continuous Learning
  • Accountability

People Manager Path

Opportunities:

  1. Leadership Experience: Lead and develop a team, gaining experience in management and leadership. The ability to guide a team toward common goals can lead to personal and team success.
  2. Strategic Decision-Making: Involvement in higher-level decision-making that affects the team and organization. Contributing to strategic decisions allows you to shape your team’s direction and impact the organization’s overall success.

Challenges:

  1. Time Management: Often managers struggle with balancing administrative tasks, team management, and individual contributions. As a leader, you should find ways to prioritize tasks, delegate effectively, and cultivate time-management skills to ensure a balanced focus for you and your team.
  2. Managing Conflict: Learning how to address interpersonal conflicts within the team becomes critically important. Developing strong interpersonal and conflict resolution skills, and fostering a culture of open communication within the team.

Skills Needed:

  • Leadership
  • Communication and Listening
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Decision-Making
  • Delegation
  • Performance Management
  • Coaching and Mentorship
  • Strategic Thinking
  • Team Building

Fueling Your Decision

Every career path is unique and personal which requires a deeper dive. To help guide you to make the decision that is best for you, ask yourself the following questions and reflect on each.

  1. Personal Goals: What are your long-term career goals, and how does each path align with those goals? Consideration: Reflect on whether your aspirations lean more toward technical mastery or leadership roles.
  2. Work Preferences: Do you enjoy leading and developing others, or do you thrive in a more individual-focused role? Consideration: Assess your satisfaction in collaborative team settings versus working independently.
  3. Skill Development: What skills do you want to develop, and which path offers the best opportunities for that development? Consideration: Identify the skills needed for your desired career path and evaluate which role aligns more closely with those requirements.

Now that you have reflected on each of these it’s time to have the discussion with your manager and dive into the specifics of your organization, the role, and opportunities.

Discuss With Your Manager

Now that you are armed with information about your preferences you can take the next step – a discussion with your manager. This decision is unique to every individual and all aspects of future career paths should be evaluated and discussed.

If there is an offer in front of you to move to a management role or to move up in your current individual contributor role, here are some key questions to help guide your conversation:

  1. What Does Success Look Like in Each Role?
    Why Ask: Understanding the expectations, contributions, impact, and metrics for success in both roles provides clarity on the outcomes your manager values.
  2. How Can I Contribute Most Effectively to the Team/Organization?
    Why Ask: To understand your manager’s perspective on your contributions to the team. It also guides where your skills and strengths align best, helping you make a decision based on organizational needs.
  3. What Leadership Opportunities Are There as an Individual Contributor?
    Why Ask: To evaluate potential growth avenues within your current position, by exploring whether there are leadership-like responsibilities available in your current role that can provide a taste of management without a formal transition. Read more about this in the following section.
  4. What Development Opportunities Exist for Each Path?
    Why Ask: Understanding the training, mentorship, development programs and the support available for both paths helps you assess the support structure in place.
  5. How Can I Build the Necessary Skills for a Management Role?
    Why Ask: It’s critical to have support for a management role and having opportunities and a roadmap for skill development will be crucial. This question will help identify the specific skills and competencies your manager believes are essential for a successful transition to a management role.
  6. What Support and Resources Are Available for Professional Development?
    Why Ask: Inquire about the organization’s commitment to employee growth and whether there are resources or programs in place to support your development.
  7. Is There an Opportunity to Gain Exposure to Management Responsibilities?
    Why Ask: Request opportunities to take on additional responsibilities that provide exposure to managerial tasks, before making a formal transition. Read more about this in the following section.
  8. How Does Each Path Align with the Organization’s Goals and Future Plans?
    Why Ask: Understand how your choice aligns with the strategic direction and goals of the organization and where your role fits into the bigger picture.
  9. What Support Can I Expect During a Transition to a Management Role?
    Why Ask: To better understand the level of support, training, and mentorship available during a transition to ensure a smooth and successful shift
  10. Can We Establish Clear Metrics for Success in Both Paths?
    Why Ask: Establish clear expectations and seek agreement on measurable indicators of success in each role for ongoing performance assessments

By engaging in these discussions, you can gain valuable insights, align your goals with organizational objectives, and make an informed decision about your career path, whether that involves staying and growing in an individual contributor role or transitioning into a management role.

Explore the Management Role without the BIG commitment

If you are contemplating a transition to a managerial role without prior experience, you can take several proactive steps to gain exposure to leadership responsibilities. Working collaboratively with your current manager and seeking opportunities to develop leadership skills can be a beneficial approach. Below are some suggestions on how to approach this conversation.

Step 1: Start with communicating your aspirations and interests to your current manager. Express your interest in taking on responsibilities that involve leadership and people management. Open communication is crucial for aligning your career goals with organizational needs.

Step 2: Look for projects within your team or organization that require coordination, collaboration, or supervision. For example, if a highly visible project requires someone to coordinate multiple cross-functional teams, volunteer to lead, and take the initiative to organize team activities. This allows you to demonstrate your leadership potential.

Step 3: Seek out mentoring from your current manager or other experienced leaders in your organization. A mentor can provide guidance, share insights, and help you navigate the complexities of a managerial role.

Step 4: Find helpful information, workshops, seminars, or training sessions focused on leadership and management skills. Many organizations offer internal programs or support external courses that can help you build foundational knowledge.

Step 5: Even if you are not in a formal leadership role now you can demonstrate your leadership qualities. Take the initiative, support your colleagues, and foster a positive and collaborative team culture.

Step 6: Regularly seek feedback from your manager on your performance and leadership potential. Use this feedback to identify areas for improvement and tailor your development efforts accordingly.

Step 7: If possible, explore cross-training or shadowing opportunities within your organization. Learning aspects of other roles, and observing their daily responsibilities and their decision-making process can provide valuable insights.

Step 8: Expand your professional network by connecting with leaders inside and outside your organization. LinkedIn is a great place to start! 

By taking these proactive steps, you can gain exposure to leadership responsibilities even without direct managerial experience. The key is to be intentional about expressing your aspirations, seeking relevant opportunities, and continuously developing the skills necessary for a successful transition into a managerial role. This collaborative approach with your current manager can pave the way for a smoother and more supported career progression.

Last Words of Advice

To understand your strengths, preferences, and what truly motivates you, regularly reflect on your career satisfaction and adjust your path accordingly. Consider taking on projects that expose you to elements of both paths before making a decision. By seeking opportunities to cross-collaborate or volunteer for projects that provide exposure to different aspects of each role. Whichever path you choose, commit to ongoing learning and development. Reminder, stay curious, attend relevant training, and actively seek opportunities for professional growth. The decision between the individual contributor and people manager paths is nuanced and highly personal. Each path offers unique opportunities and challenges, and the key is to align your choices with your aspirations, continuously develop relevant skills, and be open to the dynamic nature of your career journey. Embrace the decision-making process, knowing that each step contributes to your professional growth and success.