What’s Your Career Path — Individual Contributor or Manager?

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Someone I met recently made an interesting comment.

Not only had she been surprised that I had been in the workforce for 20 years, but I didn’t currently have a title indicating an obvious level of authority or power.

I chuckled.

Had it been earlier in my career — say, 10 years ago — I would have been offended. I would have allowed ‘imposter syndrome’ to seep in, feeling like I hadn’t accomplished much in my career nor added value to organizations in a meaningful way.

Though my professional journey has afforded me some pretty awesome opportunities including working internationally, speaking at conferences, and running my own business during my tenure in the recruitment industry, I understood her point.

I had made a choice that many professionals face in their careers: Stay an individual contributor or pursue the traditional path of management.

Making the decision to stay an individual contributor can be a difficult one. You may be worried that you are limiting your career growth or advancement opportunities.

This is especially true for those who feel unseen in their careers. Introverts, for example, might feel a bit panicked about their options to grow professionally. They might feel the only way to advance in responsibility and in salary is to pursue roles that might have them in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, front and center, leading teams and managing others.

But… it doesn’t always have to be that way.

There are many benefits to staying in an individual contributor role, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have a diminished professional future. Such benefits include:

  1. Becoming an expert. Being an individual contributor gives people the chance to build authority through deep knowledge and application. It allows you to become a practitioner skilled with particular expertise. Not only will it promote continued fluency and practice in your line of work, but such expertise opens the door to other opportunities to innovate, educate and influence. For example, it would make sense for individual contributors with extensive knowledge to weigh in on product architecture or program design, or even to lend their thought leadership as an expert at industry conferences.
  2. Keeping close to where the action happens. You stay connected to your industry through your involvement in operations. By having a direct hand in the day-to-day, individual contributors see how their work impacts customers directly and are in an immediate position to effect change.
  3. Staying on top of key skills relevant to your industry. Individual contributors mirror the act of ‘lifelong learning, having to keep current on the latest technologies and approaches in their field throughout the years. By staying at the pulse of what their professions are doing, individual contributors are able to easily translate their experiences in the marketplace not just now, but in the future.
  4. Confirming the idea that you don’t have to have an elevated title to have a voice. Just as people don’t have to be elected to public office to make a difference in their communities, being an individual contributor provides a perspective that’s different from those in other roles. It brings a unique power and point of view.

Beyond these points, I’ve realized that I’ve enjoyed being an individual contributor because of the ability to be in service to others and to make a direct impact on the process. I’ve also learned that such experiences have given me the confidence to mentor and collaborate with others on teams. And this would serve as a great foundation in the future in the event I wish to pursue leadership roles, too.

How have you chosen to advance your career? Any insight you’d like to share? Please comment below.

Note: While I love working as part of the Sourcing team at Deloitte, I also enjoy helping professionals who feel stuck or unseen in their career advancement develop strategies to attract the opportunities they want. Please send me a DM if you find yourself interested to learn how I can help you.

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