Leadership development is a big deal; however, we tend to invest in leadership development for people who are already leaders, which might not be the best time to get the best returns on that investment.
In reviewing the discourse, especially in contemporary contexts, there is a clear preference to refer to leadership rather than management (or other related activities) because of the former’s visionary and transformative connotations. However, for those navigating these roles, the reality is less dichotomous. Their experiences don’t neatly fit into predefined managerial or leadership silos but rather span a spectrum. This spectrum is best encapsulated by the concept of “non-individual contribution roles,” which presents layers of intricate challenges and responsibilities that magnify as one ascends the organizational ladder or takes on increasingly more systemic accountability.
Instead of focusing on managerial or leadership categories, it’s more pragmatic to focus on stages of accountabilities and responsibilities marked by distinct activities and outcomes that, in turn, require specific knowledge and skills to be successful. Each stage carries its own set of complexities, builds on the stage before and widens the scope of influence. As a result, developmental approaches need to target the specific variables that drive the evolution of accountabilities and responsibilities and do it with contextual relevance.
It’s imperative, therefore, to reconceptualize our strategies, framing them around the unique nuances of each non-individual contributor stage and context. By creating a curriculum tailored to support individuals at every stage of evolving accountabilities and responsibilities, we not only acknowledge the multifaceted nature of their roles but also equip them with the tools to navigate and succeed amid increasing complexity.
Who is a Non-Individual Contributor?
In referring to a role as a “non-individual contributor,” we invariably suggest there is an “individual contributor” role. Therefore to understand the non-individual contributor, we’ll contrast it with the individual contributor.
Individual Contributors (IC)
Individual Contributors are employees who work primarily on their own tasks and responsibilities rather than managing or leading teams. They might be part of a team, but their primary role is to contribute individually to the team’s or organization’s goals.
Task-Oriented: They focus on specific tasks or projects assigned to them.
Lack of Managerial Responsibilities: They don’t have direct reports and typically don’t manage teams.
Specialized Skills: ICs often possess specialized skills or knowledge, which they apply to their tasks. These skills can range from technical proficiencies in fields like software development to expertise in areas like research or design.
Performance Metrics: Their performance is often measured by the quality and efficiency of their work, as well as their ability to meet personal or project-specific objectives.
Non-Individual Contributors, often referred to as “managers” or “leaders,” are employees whose primary responsibilities involve leading, supervising, or managing teams or groups of individual contributors.
Team-Oriented: Their focus is on team or departmental goals rather than individual tasks.
Managerial Responsibilities: They have direct reports and are responsible for the performance, well-being, and development of their team members.
Broad Overview: Instead of specialized tasks, they often need a broader understanding of multiple facets of the business or organization to guide their teams effectively.
Performance Metrics: Their performance is often measured not only by their personal achievements but also by the achievements of their teams or departments. This includes metrics related to team productivity, morale, and development.
Scope of Work: While ICs focus on specific, individual tasks or projects, non-individual contributors have a broader scope that encompasses overseeing the tasks of multiple individuals or entire teams.
Skill Set: ICs often hone very specific and specialized skills pertinent to their role, whereas non-individual contributors need a balance of specialized knowledge and managerial or leadership skills.
Performance Evaluation: An IC’s performance is typically evaluated based on their personal output and how well they accomplish individual tasks. In contrast, non-individual contributors are evaluated based on their leadership abilities and the performance and development of their team or department.
Development Path: ICs might advance by deepening their expertise, taking on more complex tasks, or even transitioning into a non-individual contributor role. Non-individual contributors, on the other hand, may progress into higher managerial or leadership positions with more responsibilities.
Non-Individual Contributor Developmental Stages
In thinking about how to help non-individual contributors develop the skills to be more effective in the role, we need to develop a working model of how accountability and responsibilities evolve. The model described below and illustrated with the layered visual and detailed table is a 7-stage model where each stage requires and builds on the stage before it.
Work Supervision: This is the simplest level, often suited to frontline or lower-level management. Work supervisors are typically responsible for overseeing the day-to-day tasks of a small group of employees or a specific project. They ensure tasks are completed accurately and on time. Their skills are mostly operational, including task allocation and progress monitoring.
Team Management: At this level, managers oversee a team, often involving scheduling, budgeting, and resource allocation. They’re responsible for their team’s performance and productivity. Their skills include not only operational aspects but also some strategic ones, like performance analysis and improvement strategies. They also need to have conflict resolution and communication skills.
Team Leadership: This level goes beyond mere management to inspire and motivate team members. Team leaders not only oversee operations but also work to boost morale and promote a healthy team culture. They may be involved in team building, fostering innovation, and encouraging personal growth. They need strong interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and vision-casting ability.
Department Leadership: This level involves managing multiple teams or an entire department. Responsibilities include setting departmental goals in line with company objectives, making key decisions, and coordinating with other department leaders. These leaders need more advanced strategic planning, decision-making, and change management skills. They’re often involved in hiring and talent development.
Business Unit Leadership: At this level, leaders manage a significant portion of the organization, such as a large department or business unit. Their role involves setting strategic direction for the unit in alignment with the overall organizational objectives, making high-level decisions about resources and priorities, and coordinating with other business unit leaders.
Executive Leadership: This level comprises the organization’s senior executives. These leaders have specific domains they’re responsible for and work to ensure these areas align with and support the organization’s overall strategic goals. They often play a role in shaping the organization’s culture and policies, as well as managing stakeholder relations.
C-Suite/CEO Leadership: This is the highest level of organizational leadership. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or equivalent sets the overall strategic direction of the company, ensures the company’s sustainability, and manages key stakeholder relationships, including those with the board of directors, shareholders, and the public. This role requires exceptional strategic vision, business acumen, and leadership skills.
Relationship between the blocks — layering
The layered illustration above shows how work supervision is the primary foundation for team leadership, and team leadership is the primary foundation for business unit leadership and above.
In the introduction, I wrote about how we needed to approach leadership development differently. The main difference with these 7 stages is that it highlights how a lot of our current approaches focus on the top end, often ignoring the necessary foundations of the lower stages that enable real success at the top end. It is worth noting that the work supervision stage is actually the entry point for individual contributors as accountability can be given to individual or non-individual contributors, and this supervision stage is foundational.
The 7-stage model emphasizes the need to see and support the whole journey and not just focus on the fancy, esoteric stuff at the top, along with the appeal of working with “senior leaders”.
The table below is not exhaustive, but it is representative of the construct. It provides additional details for each of the stages. These details are needed to help people in these roles with role clarity, gap awareness, gap analysis, and gap closure.
Role clarity: Accountability (results to be achieved) and responsibilities (actions to be completed)
Gap awareness: remedial (not able to perform actions or achieve results), aspirational (pushing the possibilities of results that can be achieved), growth (getting ready to perform at the next level of complexity)
Gap analysis: skill and/or knowledge limitations causing the gap
Gap closure: the learning and development actions that will address the skills and/or knowledge limitations
So how do we pivot from developing leaders to developing non-individual contributors?
What does that pivot mean for the current “training programs” we have and offer as part of our leadership development offerings?
Are we investing enough in the earlier stages, building a strong foundation for success in the latter stages?
For those people on their non-individual contributor development journey, I hope this article helps you; use the detailed table above to try to identify which stage you are in and what support you need to achieve success in that stage — get role clarity, become aware of your gaps, diagnose those gaps and take action to close them.
I’m passionate about topics like performance, capability development and capacity expansion, purposefulness and intentionality, success strategies, holistic wellness, meaningful life and work, human+technology, technology as an enabler, music and creative media production techniques and technologies. Reach out, I’m open to a sit down anytime to share ideas over a nice cup of coffee or tea!
This article incorporates text generated with the assistance of GPT, an advanced language model developed by OpenAI.