14th Jul 2008

Individual contributors and leadership

By Karen McHenry

More and more companies have adopted a “flat” organizational structure as a way to reduce costs and become more nimble. With management positions few and far between, numerous professionals are electing to make careers through individual contributor roles. Is it possible to be both an individual contributor and a leader? The answer is a resounding “Yes.” Let’s explore three keys to building credibility as an individual contributor: expertise, values, and vision.

Become an Expert

Many individual contributors act as coordinators, working through others. The challenge for professionals like product managers or marketing managers is that they have no direct authority over the people they need to influence. One way to successfully persuade others is through expertise.

Developing expertise can take many forms. For example, individual contributors may become product experts. This requires experiencing the product through the eyes of the customer, acting as a customer advocate, and translating customer insights into actionable business requirements. When a team member conveys product expertise, his or her requests carry more weight with others.

Eric Salerno, Product Marketing Manager at Liquid Machines, noted: “People from all parts of an organization are interested in influencing product development, but without input from a customer or evidence such as hard data to justify their ideas, it can be difficult to be heard. Talking with customers helps, but I have found that communicating with potential customers about their needs and translating that information into feature specifications is a much more likely way to impact an organization’s product direction.”

Another form of expertise is market knowledge. Having in-depth knowledge of competitors, as well as partners, can be very valuable to an organization. Employees with market expertise are the “go-to” people when product decisions must be made that will affect the company’s competitiveness.

Individual contributors may also be process experts who know how to navigate the organization. For example, a product manager who is an engineering expert understands how the development team makes its decisions. By staying on top of projects and understanding how much detail teams need for an idea to gain traction, the process expert can successfully shepherd projects through the various organizational channels.

As Ilene Tatroe, Senior Product Manager at Kronos, commented: “We rarely run across a single way to implement a feature, but the options can run from relatively low-cost to high-cost, as well as minimal design to ritzy. The development team looks to me, as a product manager, to ask the right questions, not just of our customers, but of internal stakeholders – such as sales, support, and service – so that I can determine the right balance of cost and functionality.” A combination of product expertise, as well as internal organizational knowledge, gives individual contributors authority within the team and leadership within the company.

Demonstrate Values

The values that individual contributors exhibit are another good way to develop credibility. Common traits associated with leaders include:

  • Commitment to the success of the project. Not surprisingly, people are more likely to be considered leaders when they show commitment to their work. This can be demonstrated through a strong work ethic. It may also be evident in the ability to make tough decisions. No one likes hard choices, but the willingness to take a position and stand behind a decision is definitely valued.
  • Being a “team player.” As an individual contributor, working to advance the team’s goal (instead of individual goals) is critically important. Developing trust with people from various functional areas is a necessity. Personal relationships are a key component of persuading others to a particular point of view.
  • Showing enthusiasm. A positive attitude can be infectious. Those people who demonstrate enthusiasm for their projects are perceived as fun to work with. This trait, along with expertise, forms a powerful combination for individual contributors seeking an informal leadership role.

Articulate a Vision

One clear way that individual contributors can differentiate themselves is by taking their project and articulating a vision for it. This means creating a picture of the ideal project outcomes that others support. However, a vision alone is not enough. True leaders back up their vision with a realistic roadmap for accomplishing that vision.

Whether your personal goals are to move into a management position or to remain an individual contributor, there are steps you can take today to increase your credibility and become a more valuable employee. Expertise, values and vision are a few tools to use on your journey. Along the way, you are sure to gain credibility with peers, become a better leader, and help your organization reach its objectives.

Karen McHenry consults to the software industry on strategy and new product development, writes on business, technology and career issues, and teaches at Endicott College.

Copyright © 2008 Karen McHenry

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