Being a manager isn’t for everyone. Many professionals in management, even those who have spent most of their careers in the position, may find more satisfaction — and make a bigger impact — switching to an individual contributor (IC) role. And they shouldn’t think of the move as a step backward or a failure either.
Philip Su, the former CEO of Audere, has switched from a manager to an individual contributor many times in his career. Despite the awkward feeling of going against the grain, he has found the manager-to-IC pivot is, for a lot of people, very much worth it.
“I find people have a lot more fear about that move than is warranted,” Su told Built In. “Once people have made the transition, they usually will tell you that they are so relieved and they’re a lot happier now.”
How to Move From Manager to Individual Contributor
Before you take the leap from manager to IC, consider how to tell your employer, how to prepare your team and how your salary will be impacted.
Clarify Your Reasons for Pivoting from Manager to Individual Contributor
Before you even let your company know of your intentions, take some time to reflect on your desire to make the transition to IC, trying to pinpoint the reasons behind your feelings.
According to Michael Sealy, a senior iOS developer at Omada Health who made the move from manager to IC, it may just be a gut feeling that’s difficult to put into words.
“If you have that voice in your head saying, ‘I should be doing something else,’ that’s your heart speaking to you,” Sealy said. “When you allow it, it will lead you down the right path.”
Keep Your Tactical Skills Sharp
Make sure you have the ability to execute the tactical, everyday tasks required of the IC role — especially if you’ve spent the past several years in a more strategic position.
Managers looking to move to IC roles can keep their skills sharp by getting more involved with the day-to-day tasks of their team and finding ways to learn and develop skills outside of work.
After about 12 years at Microsoft, Su had risen to a managerial level just below partner. But on the weekends, he still built websites and iPhone apps for fun. This allowed him to keep up with the latest trends and tools in his field outside of work, which helped him land an individual contributor role at Facebook in 2010, when the company was still relatively young.
Inform Your Manager of Your Desire to Become an Individual Contributor
When it comes time to tell your own manager or company leadership about your desire to take the step toward being an individual contributor, emphasize why you want to be an IC and how this transition could benefit your company or team.
For example, you could speak on the aspects of being an IC you miss, like being able to directly work on coding projects or speaking to clients, and how your experience as a manager can inform your work as an individual.
Be clear with your manager on what kind of IC role you want. Although a change to an individual contributor may mean a change in salary, it doesn’t mean you have to go back to an entry-level position.
Set Your Team Up for Success
Make the transition as seamless as possible for your team. That often starts with finding your replacement (you may want to bring your manager ideas for your replacement the same time you let them know about your transition). Help onboard this new manager, or spend time in a hybrid role while you transition from manager to IC to ensure your move isn’t too jarring.
Set Clear Expectations With Your New Manager
Talking with your manager before the move can help set expectations and ease any awkwardness about the change in power dynamic.
When Su became an individual contributor at Facebook, he said his new boss had previously been two management levels below him. Su knew and accepted that if he wanted to work as an individual contributor he was going to be managed by someone more junior than him. But he recalled his new boss felt awkward about the change in power dynamic. Addressing the issue head on helped smooth the working relationship.
Since Su had previously worked above his new manager, he said it was important to talk about the expectations for his new role. He didn’t want his boss to think that, because he had been at a higher level in the company, Su could walk in and already perform all the tasks required of his new job without any help.
“Being explicit with your up-and-coming manager about his or her expectations for how long it will take to function at the expected level is important,” Su said. “Like, ‘Will you be measuring me on day one against other individual contributors my level or is there an affordance for an amount of time for me to ramp into getting to that performance level?’”
Benefits of Managers Moving to Individual Contributor Roles
The pivot from manager to individual contributor benefits both companies and the employees themselves.
Organizations Get ICs Who Can See the Bigger Picture
Collin Park, a senior engineer at NetApp who transitioned from manager to individual contributor more than 40 years ago, said he’s a better coworker as a result of the move.
Ultimately, that’s better for the organization for which he works, because now when he reflects on projects, he thinks: “What are all the pieces that need to happen for this to come together?” Whereas before, he didn’t think about much beyond his individual assignment.
Sealy agreed that working in a managerial role made him value the business side of the house more. He learned to prioritize developing features customers desired, and realized the best solution was the one that was finished on time.
ICs Get to Spend More Time Doing Work They Enjoy
When Su worked as a manager, he’d spend all day in meetings, which he said zapped his energy. He also found that, as he managed larger and larger teams, the decisions he made became more strategic but abstract, and the timeline for their implementation moved farther out. Pivoting back into an IC role allowed him to do more fulfilling work.
This is a benefit for companies too.“You’re not losing something, you’re actually gaining something,” Sealy said.
How Employers Can Support Senior Individual Contributors
Although individual contributors don’t interact with company leadership as much as people at the management level, they still need solid support from their organization. According to Su, it’s important for company culture: “It’s a retention and happiness and performance play for a company to better support them,” he said.
Some of the things ICs need from their employer are opportunities to grow, training and development programs and recognition.
Offer Opportunities for Growth
Company leadership should consider ways that ICs can move laterally to develop new skills or learn from teams they have an interest in. There’s also plenty of ways ICs can take on more responsibility in their current roles, like being the lead on a new project, teaching a new skill to their teammates or collaborating with other departments.
Provide Training and Development
Companies should provide their individual contributors with options for training and development. These programs can come in many different forms, but some common ways to help employees develop new skills include mentorship programs, conferences and training courses on specific skills and tools. Learning and development stipends, as well as sponsorship for degree programs are also popular employee perks.
Ramp Up Recognition
Creating a platform for employees, managers and leadership to recognize each other, whether through a specific tool or in team meetings, allows individual contributors to feel seen and valued. Plus, one survey found that personal recognition helps employees work better.
Roadblocks Facing Senior Individual Contributors
An age difference presented an initial barrier for Su as he moved from management at Microsoft to individual contributor at Facebook, where he found himself surrounded by coworkers who were younger than him.
In order to avoid ageism, and other unconscious biases, in the workplace, provide training for your team that debunks common stereotypes surrounding different ages and highlights the value of a diverse workforce.
Previous Experience Doesn’t Always Translate
Over time, Su said he realized the lessons he learned at a large, legacy organization didn’t necessarily translate to a smaller company.
When making the move, he said accepting his work would have a smaller scope was important too.
“It can be very empowering to make decisions for hundreds of people, have people laugh louder at your jokes,” Su said. “Being able to take a step back and say, ‘Hey, maybe I will be judged by the output of my hand as opposed to the title I have,’ I think that can be a hard reduction for many people.”
Difference in Salary
Managers that move to IC roles may have a lower salary than before. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is happy about it. Su thinks that managers turned individual contributors shouldn’t have to take a pay cut. Sealy agreed that companies should not cut someone’s salary if they’re moving from a management to an individual contributor role, since their management experience helps them give better feedback to their coworkers and improves career path opportunities overall.
In many cultures, taking a step back from management is seen as a backward move or an indicator that someone failed in their role. Park pointed out that this is common in countries like India, where he said there are firm expectations from family and society that one should always be moving forward in their career.
Adapting to Individual Contributor Careers
Working long-term as an individual contributor depends on your ability to adapt to the times, according to Sealy and Park, who have remained individual contributors since their stints in management.
Park said author Peter F. Drucker’s The Effective Executive and author Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma offer valuable insight on how to stay current in a field that is always changing. Whatever field you might be in, joining an industry organization, reading industry journals and attending conferences can help you stay up on new technology and ideas.
“Just take a little initiative,” Park said.