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4 Strategies To Speed Up Your Progression From A Senior Individual Contributor To A Managerial Role


individual contributor to manager

Are you a senior individual contributor with over ten years of experience in a specific domain or career? Have you gained a significantly wide range of skills in your career? Have you worked on developing your specialization in a particular niche?

As an experienced professional, you are at the level where you could translate your knowledge into leadership if you play it right. If you strategize your approaches well enough, you could be the next-in-line candidate for a potential opportunity to be in the supervisory, management, or leadership role.

It is a difficult stage of career

Being at a “sandwich” career position is no doubt one of the most challenging positions.

On the one hand, your team members or peers admire you and look up to you for guidance. As a result, you may have a certain level of insecurity to lose your place in a more vibrant workforce entering the workplace.

On the other hand, your upstream management may have a whole range of expectations of you regarding specific outcomes and behaviors. As a result, you are likely to have a certain level of anxiety thinking of ways to look good in front of the upstream management.

More often, you may have challenges in pinning down how you should really come across on both sides of the fence to increase your chances of moving forward at a faster rate. For that reason, not all senior individual contributors find it easy to navigate this position and speed up their careers further.

Learning new dynamics

For the last two decades, I have worked as an individual contributor in various roles. I have been fortunate enough to manage large teams of individual contributors, comprising entry-level, mid-level, and senior professionals. I have noticed that senior professionals are primarily in a sort of ‘wait mode’ waiting for their calling while they have a keen desire to progress faster. However, they do not always get systematic guidance from their immediate managers to move forward.

To successfully establish yourself as a next-in-line potential candidate, you need to master a whole unique set of dynamics compared to mid-level or entry-level professionals. These dynamics are not taught in most organizations.

As a performance scientist, I have made keen observations regarding what specific strategies or behaviors lead to a faster speed of progression among senior individual contributors.

I found four key strategies that you can use to speed up their professional success to the next level:

1. Be deliberate about maintaining your visibility

The new workplace in most organizations is full of equally talented professionals, the majority of whom move at a fast pace. They are increasingly becoming competitive, who rub shoulders with each other to get ahead in the career. They don’t mind going the extra mile to make themselves noticed by upper management.

When your peers are composed of such competitive professionals, you might find it hard to make yourself noticeable where you leave a long-lasting impression, despite your experience and knowledge.

Making yourself visible and staying visible is an art.

There was one very experienced senior professional reporting to me. He exhibited some behaviors that made it difficult for me as a manager to forget his presence. He sent me a comprehensive update every week without fail. This update contained the list of activities he was engaged in, new actions he identified, and unknown risks or alerts he spotted. He hardly missed any weekly updates. Simply sending weekly updates does not assure visibility. After a while, this may become a business-as-usual routine activity. The noteworthy thing that established his persistent visibility was his ability to identify issues with systems, processes, or projects and then self-assign responsibility to fix them to himself.

If you think about it, it is a commonsense approach that you are likely to do a far better and highly noteworthy job than others because you have probably already mastered that domain to a great extent. So, when you find out the issues that have value, you are basically self-inventing the work. The outcomes, if noteworthy, would get noticed and will help you stay visible.

Another senior professional working with me exhibited a different behavior. Most team members in the team were very vocal and spontaneous in expressing their opinions. However, this individual chose a deliberate approach to expressing his views. Instead of merely expressing views in the team meeting, he would pull up a slide or two or an excel sheet and then explain his viewpoints with authority. It was apparent that he had done a good amount of research to create that collateral. Of course, often, he did an excellent job in anticipating the questions that could come up in a discussion where he could showcase his carefully crafted collaterals. On other occasions, he would interject his suggestions in such a way that would bring the discussion to a point where his research becomes the center point of discussion.

Managers love slides and analysis, don’t they? The artifacts like action trackers, slides, documents, reports, or things like that stay in leaders’ inboxes or memory far longer than the verbal discussions. When the time comes, the leadership team is likely to pick these highly visible stars.

When you want to establish visibility, you need to be intentional about expressing it and making it noteworthy and memorable. Be deliberate about improving, enhancing, and maintaining your visibility.

2. Take a stand for a cause and challenge the norms

One of my direct reporting employees was usually blatant or open in pointing out the weak management decisions or viewpoints. However, he would do so factually and rationally without holding back his opinions, which is impressive. When someone resists wisely, explains the other side of the issue, which might have been missed, that objection is seen as a suggestion challenging the norms and not as a confrontation. Such a trait of taking a stand, expressing your objections, and challenging the status quo is a sure shot indicator of the spark a leadership team looks for.

As a senior individual contributor, you have already developed enough observations through your experience regarding what works and what does not. This is your moment to translate those observations into actions and create the changes you always strived for. Leverage your experience, establish your opinion, and take a stand to challenge the norm. Do not be afraid of confrontation, but do tread the thin line between productive confrontation and unproductive conflict carefully.

3. Exercise next level synthesis or integration skills

Several managers love employees with excellent analytical skills whom they can rely upon to understand complex problems. When the project work requires more attention to detail or a more serious cause analysis, the experienced professionals with a deeper level of analytical skills are the go-to persons.

I had a brilliant mid-level employee with top-notch analytical skills. He was extremely good at separating the issues and reaching the root of the problem, and was usually the first person to explain the solution. He usually would observe or catch the gaps other people won’t be able to detect easily. Such detailed-oriented, highly analytical individuals are an asset to any company.

Contrary to usual expectations of the above employee making the mark as a next-in-line candidate, he got stuck in his position for an extended period despite his skills. The reason is that analytical skills can take someone only that far. Because of his overly specialized analytical skills, he found it challenging to culminate his analysis into implementable solutions. I often had to bring in someone else who could assemble various pieces and build a solution on top of his investigation.

The world has become increasingly complex. While good analytical skills help us identify problems and issues, we need solutions to navigate difficult times. Ones who can build, drive or implement solutions are usually the top choices as the next-in-line candidates.

Thus, as a senior individual contributor, you need to develop top-order synthesis skills or integration skills. These skills involve synthesizing or integrating a diverse set of pieces, information, or components into a practical solution. You need to show that you can pull together scattered pieces of information, think strategically, and leverage multiple resources to come up with a solution. Such an ability to understand the bigger picture or build a bigger picture goes a long way in taking the career forward.

4. Keep an eye on mastering broader experience than specialization

Typically, as a senior professional, Through Years of professional development, project work, and other assignments, you are likely to have become a niche specialist in a certain area or a specific set of skills. Your specialist skills probably have already delivered proven results.

But why can you not move fast enough to the next level? What’s stopping you? It is hard to digest. In my experience, the same specialization paradoxically acts as a road blocker for most senior professionals. It hampers their speed drastically. I learned one key thing through decades of observation, coaching, and employee development. The thing that differentiates the successful next-in-line candidates from those who could not make it to the cutline is their ability to show the breadth of their experience, not the depth of specialization per se.

As you climb up the ladder of your career, problems or situations, you face often require a multidimensional understanding of the context and solutions. Thus, when you have broader insights from multiple angles or domains, you become a trusted advisor to your manager. Invariably, managers would like to run things with you where they need a broader, third-person view of the issues. When that happens, this is your opportunity to show it. One of my direct reporting employees used to get himself involved in several tasks beyond his business units, often volunteering to unrelated groups. While it may seem like a distraction at first look, those broader interactions gave him a practical broader perspective about various issues. Sometimes he brought his cross-functional knowledge to the table and earned an edge over others in presenting a fresh perspective, which did not come naturally to overly specialized individual contributors.

However, it is a tough cookie to crack because if you depend solely on your job within your organization, you will probably become more of a specialist and lose the broader perspectives. Therefore, get involved in multiple projects and activities to gain a broader knowledge and multidimensional understanding of problems beyond your core specialization. This will propel you forward at high speed. Not only does it make you a great next-in-line candidate, but it could also help you fit in several other job roles horizontally or diagonally.

Final thoughts

The world is not the same anymore. The contemporary times require a distinct set of approaches that are needed to succeed faster at the workplace. The newer technologies, automation, and AI are progressing to develop better decision-making and data analysis capabilities while addressing routine tasks more efficiently. This causes some concerns regarding the long-term relevance of a particular category of senior individual contributors. The real reskilling that you can do today is to be a differentiated senior professional who is not easily forgettable when the right time comes to find the next-in-line candidate.

This article first appeared in Brainz Magazine on 11-Oct-2021. 

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