There was a time when leadership was what “leaders” did. Leaders had a title and clear managerial responsibilities.
Now, leadership is needed (and sometimes expected) from every corner of the organization.
Never has the difference between leadership and management been as important as it is today.
What’s changed is that organizations have come to depend on a different set of relationships and the diffusion of tasks and authority throughout the organization. Matrixed structures and the emphasis on project teams for accomplishing critical functions have reduced the power associated with official positions and titles.
Many newly-promoted leaders have discovered, to their chagrin, that their new title doesn’t count for much to get the resources they need or to accomplish their goals and strategy.
They have to win the support and allegiance of their own bosses, peers, and others in their own team and elsewhere. This is one of the key challenges for first-time managers, and it can be difficult for those without direct reports, too.
From Individual Contributor to Leader
Today, individual contributors define the success of any organization. They’re just as necessary for shaping the direction and execution of their organization’s strategy as those in formal managerial roles. Yet, most individual contributors are not well-prepared to make themselves heard.
They know their expertise and experience may be very important, but seldom are they equipped to exert the influence that their knowledge merits. The consequences are declining morale among individual contributors and the loss to their organizations of their engagement and expertise.
We often talk about the 4 core leadership skills needed to succeed in every role, and those are applicable for individual contributors, too: self-awareness, learning agility, communication, and influence. The latter 2 are especially important for individual contributors:
- Communication skills: Too often, individual contributors have been dismissed as complainers or blamed for “poor social skills.” Yet the deep knowledge and technical expertise that individual contributors bring are critical to the success of innovation efforts and the implementation of new technologies and processes. Individual contributors have to find ways to communicate simply and clearly what they know and make good judgments about what others need to know to accomplish their objectives. Improved communications skills often yield immediate benefits to the organization — and to the contributor.
- Influencing skills: As is true for all leaders, the power associated with a position or formal role has become less effective as a way of getting people engaged in a common purpose. More important is the ability to create alliances, win others over to a point of view, and make a persuasive case for certain courses of action. Many individual contributors selected themselves into highly technical fields because they were more comfortable in that world than in the social environment of school. Their organizations need them to develop their ability to influence others without formal authority. A leadership development experience can help them think strategically about where their influence can make a difference and about how building the right relationships can amplify their contributions.
Yes, Individual Contributors Need Leadership Development, Too
In addition to sharpening these fundamental leadership skills, leadership training can also close the gap for individual contributors in a couple of other key areas where they often struggle:
- Self-confidence: Because of the often-narrow focus of individual contributors within an area of special expertise, their interactions with others can sometimes feel blunt or awkward. It’s common to find individual contributors suffering from low self-confidence, as a consequence of unsuccessful interactions with their own managers and others within the organization. In some cases, this has led to individual contributors being less willing to speak up, less willing to challenge bad assumptions, and patterns of withdrawal or negativity coloring their view of those in formal leadership roles.
- Project and team leadership: The matrixed structures of many contemporary organizations means that individual contributors may often be responsible for ad hoc teams charged with specific projects. Group success depends on the competence of that subject matter expert to pull together an effective team, help it get started in effective work, and keep the group focused on achieving its goals. It’s irrational to expect that individual contributors who have never had any training in group process or team leadership could do this automatically.
This is why at CCL, our belief is yes, individual contributors can benefit greatly from leadership training, just as other leaders can. And when organizations invest in helping their people develop their leadership capabilities, they benefit greatly, too.
Often, the investment in individual contributors is the lowest in all organizations. This is understandable from the typical “pyramid view” of organizational structure. But now that the pyramid is wider and flatter, the way we think about that pyramid must change.
Competitive organizations understand that it’s not okay to neglect the technical experts in formulating strategy, nor to ignore the insights of the salesforce on the front lines. They also recognize that the communications needed may be hampered by organizational habits of marginalizing those whose influence skills are subpar.
So, what is your organization doing for your individual contributors? How are you attracting, developing, and retaining the best of the best? How are you setting them up for success?
Make sure your individual contributors are prepared to do well and support your business priorities by supporting them with leadership development that equips them — and your organization — to succeed.