Manager or individual contributor: Choosing the right career path

Career Advice
Diyaa Mani

By Diyaa Mani
November 29, 2023

July 4, 2024

0 min read

Do you want to be a manager or an individual contributor?  

This is a challenging question many exceptional individuals face as they progress in their careers.

The prevailing belief that advancing in your career can only be achieved through management roles often results in talented individuals being pressured into becoming managers, regardless of their preference to remain individual contributors.

In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to a talent drain as individuals depart their current position in search of an organisation that aligns better with their career aspirations.

Read our article to learn more about the manager and individual contributor pathways

What is an individual contributor? 

Individual contributors (ICs) are pivotal in organisations by specialising in their technical or functional domains and making direct, hands-on contributions to projects and initiatives.

Unlike management roles, which involve overseeing teams, making strategic decisions, and setting organisational direction, ICs immerse themselves in the intricacies of their specific field.  

They are responsible for executing tasks, providing subject matter expertise, and often pushing the boundaries of technical innovation. ICs are deeply focused on the detailed aspects of their work, leveraging their specialised knowledge to solve complex problems and produce high-quality outputs.  

While management roles encompass leadership and decision-making responsibilities, individual contributors excel through their dedication to honing their technical expertise, tackling intricate challenges, and delivering tangible results that drive an organisation's success. 

Icons of people standing in their own spots, all connected to each other.

Understanding the manager vs individual contributor dilemma 

In the ever-evolving landscape of career choices, the decision between pursuing a management role or remaining an individual contributor presents a complex dilemma. This decision, faced by many individuals as they advance in their careers, hinges on various benefits and challenges unique to each path.  

Benefits of management pathways 

  1. Leadership opportunities and organisational impact: One of the primary attractions of a management role is the chance to lead and manage teams, making decisions that impact the entire organisation. Managers can set the strategic direction and drive change, enabling them to make a significant organisational impact. 

  2. Mentoring and team shaping: Managers can mentor and shape their teams, fostering growth and development in their subordinates. Guiding and empowering team members can be incredibly rewarding. 

  3. Potential for career growth: This significant aspect attracts many people to managerial roles. Not only can it lead to higher income, but it also involves an expansion in title and responsibilities. This progression can lead to increased recognition and influence within the organisation. 

Management pathway challenges 

  1. Loss of technical expertise: Moving into a management role often means shifting away from hands-on technical work. Managers may be estranged from the technical details they once excelled in, potentially losing technical expertise. 

  2. Increased workload and stress: The responsibilities of management positions can be overwhelming. Dealing with personnel matters, decision-making, and strategic planning can increase stress and workload. 

  3. Less time for innovation: With managerial tasks demanding more time, there may be less room for innovation and creativity that often characterise individual contributor roles. Managers might find themselves constrained by administrative and HR responsibilities. 

Benefits of individual contributor pathways 

  1. Deepening technical expertise: Individual contributors (ICs) can focus on deepening their technical expertise and providing specialised contributions. This specialisation allows them to become experts in their fields. 

  2. Personal projects and innovation: ICs can work on personal projects and innovate in specific areas of interest. This autonomy can be highly motivating and fulfilling.
  3. Focus on hands-on work: ICs can maintain a hands-on approach to their work without the added responsibilities of HR and management tasks. This can lead to a more direct connection with the work itself. 

Individual contributor challenges 

  1. Constrained advancement pathways: ICs often face limited growth opportunities within their roles. Advancement may require transitioning into management positions as the next step for career advancement. This can create a ceiling for those who excel in specialised functions and prefer to remain in non-managerial positions. 

  2. Visibility and recognition: Individual contributors often work behind the scenes, and while their contributions are critical, they may not have as much visibility within the company as those in leadership roles. This can result in a lack of recognition of their efforts, which can be demotivating over time.  

  3. Impact on job satisfaction and retention: A clear growth path for ICs can affect job satisfaction and retention rates. Without opportunities for advancement, talented individuals might seek employment elsewhere.

  4. Individual contributors who are not ready: Individual contributors (ICs) commonly confront obstacles related to limited career progression, reduced visibility, and potential effects on job satisfaction and retention. Companies must acknowledge these challenges and introduce a remedy through regular impact conversations facilitated by HR.

    These structured discussions can offer ICs continuous feedback and mentoring, fostering open communication and a culture of mentorship to guide their growth and enhance their contributions to the organisation. 

Man contemplating a wall filled with arrows pointing at different directions.

In a world where management is often seen as the sole path to career progression, it's crucial to recognise and embrace the value of individual contributors

By addressing the challenges, communicating effectively, and seeking out companies supporting individual contributor growth, individuals and organisations can benefit.

Now is the time to empower exceptional talents who gravitate towards the path of technical expertise and innovation. 

  • Individuals: Reflect on your strengths, preferences, and long-term goals. Communicate your career aspirations with your supervisors and HR. Research companies that offer IC growth opportunities that align with your aspirations, and consider subscribing to Airswift services to access tailored opportunities in your field.
  • Companies: Develop career frameworks accommodating management and IC growth. Recognise the value of technical experts and provide them with competitive compensation. Create transparent career paths for individual contributors, and partner with Airswift to access a pool of top-tier IC talent that can drive innovation and success in your organisation. 

Infographic depicting the aspects of a career - education, inspiration, values, skill, vision, management, and strategy.

Success stories: How top companies foster career growth for all 

  1. Apple is renowned for its Individual Contributor (IC) track, which offers a structured career path for technical experts and leadership training for individual contributors. This track allows employees to advance their technical skills, take on leadership roles, and receive increased compensation while remaining in IC roles.

  2. Google is another tech giant known for emphasising individual contributor growth. They offer ICs opportunities to work on technically challenging projects, collaborate with experts, and advance their careers while focusing on technical expertise. 

  3. Microsoft provides a clear career path for individual contributors, especially in technical roles. ICs have opportunities to lead projects, mentor others, and access various technical career development programs. 

  4. Amazon offers a robust career development program for individual contributors. ICs can progress in their careers through a defined path that includes technical growth, leadership opportunities, and competitive compensation. 

  5. Intel strongly emphasises technical expertise and offers ICs various growth avenues. They provide opportunities for individuals to take on technical leadership roles, lead projects, and continue advancing their technical careers. 

These companies recognise the value of technical experts and provide structured career paths that cater to the aspirations of individual contributors, fostering a culture of innovation and excellence in their respective industries.  

A man in a n=business suit holding up a holographic compass with its arrow pointing to the word "success".

Trust your intuition, to know if they are ready or not and talk to them, give them some training and see how they do with it.

- Jerry Horn, Senior Director, Hosting & Managed Services at ICF Next -

Valuable insights on choosing the right pathway for your career 

Choosing the right career path is a decision that carries with it the weight of one's aspirations, abilities, and vision for the future. Before you determine a career pathway that aligns most with you, consider the following: 

  1. Alignment with strengths and preferences: Experts emphasise that individuals should align their career choices with their strengths and preferences. By identifying what they excel at and what they enjoy, individuals can make career decisions that are more fulfilling and likely to lead to success. 

  2. Long-term goals and aspirations: Individuals must consider their long-term career goals and aspirations. A personalised career trajectory should consider where they want to be in the future and how their current decisions will help them achieve those goals. 

  3. Balancing technical and leadership growth: Experts stress the importance of balancing technical and leadership growth opportunities to ensure holistic career development. A well-rounded career path should allow individuals to advance their technical expertise while providing avenues for leadership development.
  4. Comprehensive career frameworks: Companies should develop comprehensive career frameworks that accommodate management and IC growth. These frameworks should be transparent and provide a clear roadmap for career progression, regardless of the chosen path. 

  5. Pitfalls of neglecting IC pathways: Experts caution that neglecting clear IC pathways within organisations can lead to several pitfalls, including high turnover of talented ICs who seek career growth elsewhere, stagnation in technical innovation, and decreased employee morale and satisfaction. Therefore, supporting and promoting IC growth is in the companies' best interest. 

A man in a business suit holding a suitcase, standing at the split on the road, against a background of silhouetted buildings and skyscrapers

Strategies for navigating the career pathway dilemma 

Individual pathways 

Navigating one's career pathway as an individual contributor demands a strategic approach. It begins with thorough self-assessment, where you evaluate your unique strengths and career goals, aligning them with your intrinsic characteristics.

To make informed decisions, it's essential to communicate openly with supervisors and HR, articulating your aspirations and skills. 

 In cases where your organisation lacks clear individual contributor (IC) pathways, discussions about mentorship, leadership development, and technical growth are invaluable.

Furthermore, identifying companies that resonate with your goals through diligent research is paramount. Transparent career paths and a culture that values technical expertise should be sought after.

This strategic trifecta of self-assessment, communication, and research empowers individuals to make well-informed career decisions, ensuring their aspirations align with their chosen organisation's resources and values.  

Evaluate your strengths and career goals using self-assessment strategies 

  • Reflect on your strengths, preferences, and long-term goals. 
  • Use self-assessment tools such as the Myers-Briggs, DISC assessment, Big Five, or RIASEC to gain deeper insights into your personality and preferences. 

Communicate your preferred career pathway 

  • Discuss your preferred career path with your supervisor and HR department. 
  • Be prepared to articulate your strengths, skills, and goals. 
  • If your company does not offer clear individual contributor (IC) pathways, ask about opportunities for mentorship, leadership development, and technical growth. 

Research about your preferred career path 

  • Identify companies that offer IC growth opportunities aligned with your aspirations. 
  • Look for companies with transparent career paths and a culture that values technical expertise. 
  • Utilise resources such as company websites, job boards, and employee testimonials to learn more about potential employers. 

Management pathways 

Companies must demonstrate their recognition of the invaluable contributions made by technical experts, fostering a culture that appreciates and rewards their specialised skills.

Concurrently, individuals with aspirations for management roles must proactively engage in leadership training and development programs within their organisations to prepare themselves for the responsibilities of such positions.

The synergy of these efforts ensures a harmonious and rewarding career journey for both employees and the organisations they serve. 

  • These pathways should provide opportunities for technical growth, leadership development, and increased compensation. 

  • Companies should also recognise the value of technical experts and provide them with competitive compensation.

  • Individuals aspiring to pursue management pathways can actively seek leadership training and development programs within their organisations, take on project leadership roles, and engage in mentorship opportunities to build the necessary skills and experience for managerial positions. 

Drawing of a bullseye with an arrow embedded in the center, surrounded by the words "strategy", "goals", and "plans".

Conclusion: Balancing management and individual contributor paths 

A woman in a business suit balancing on a plank between two edges of a ravine.

In conclusion, the choice between management and individual contributor roles is highly personal, driven by individual strengths and career aspirations.

By understanding the nuances of each pathway and actively seeking organisations that support individual contributor growth, employees can chart a career course aligned with their technical expertise and passion for innovation. 

Key takeaways

  • Individual decision-making: Choosing between management and individual contributor roles should be based on an individual's strengths, preferences, and long-term career goals. 

  • Organisational responsibility: Organisations must create comprehensive career frameworks that cater to management and individual contributor growth to avoid potential pitfalls such as high turnover, innovation stagnation, and decreased morale. 

  • Effective communication: Open and consistent communication between employees, supervisors, and HR is crucial for aligning career aspirations with organisational support. 

  • Research and alignment: Identifying companies that offer opportunities aligned with personal aspirations is vital. Seek organisations with transparent advancement paths for individual contributors. 

  • Corporate recognition: Companies should recognise and reward the value of technical experts, offering competitive compensation and supporting IC growth. This support can significantly impact company culture, innovation, and employee satisfaction.

Deciding between a manager career path or individual contributor role is a significant career choice. Airswift, a leading workforce solutions provider, offers tailored services to elevate your career. For individual contributors, subscribing to Airswift provides access to a network of opportunities aligned with unique strengths.

Airswift also ensures access to top-tier individual contributor talent for companies, fostering a culture of innovation. Empower your career or organisation with Airswift's services, aligning values, aspirations, and commitment to excellence in the workplace. 

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