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How to develop leaders at every level, including individual contributors

Not all managers are leaders, and not all leaders are managers. 

In my 20 years of professional experience, I’ve:

  • Been an individual contributor (IC)
  • Been on teams filled with leaders
  • Had managers who were leaders
  • Had managers who weren’t
  • Managed a team

Though I enjoyed being a manager, I’ve chosen to spend the remainder of my career as an IC. But that doesn’t mean that I’m no longer a leader. In fact, it has strengthened my resolve to show how non-managers can lead

For ICs who aspire to be leaders, the steps aren’t always clear. Being self-aware is a great first step, but there’s so much more we—and our managers—can and should do. 

To be effective, talent optimization must be embraced by leaders at every level. (That’s discussed in the Talent Optimization Certification if you’d like to dig in and learn more.) Managers who are leaders know they need ICs who are leaders on their team.

There are a number of tried and true, certified successful and impactful steps managers can take and behaviors they can exhibit to be viewed as leaders in their organization. It’s more challenging to find steps for ICs to take. 

Below are some things I’ve learned along with actions managers and individual contributors can take.

1. Organizations have to make leadership a value. 

Leaders want to be inspired, challenged, and successful. We want to feel as though we’re contributing to business results. We want to work with other leaders and we want to be mentored by and a mentor to talented, aspiring leaders. If organizations don’t make leadership part of the culture, business results will be significantly more difficult to achieve and turnover will be an issue.

  • Advocate for leadership being a value at your organization. At PI, our leadership principles are known as FABRIC and are used to give people shout-outs in Slack and awards at monthly company meetings. Download our leadership template.
  • When interviewing candidates, be sure to communicate your view and the company’s view on leadership and development. What does leadership mean at your company? How is it rewarded? What investments are made in creating and retaining leaders? 
  • For your current team, communicate what leadership means and how it’s rewarded. Show your support for continued learning and involvement in other projects where there are opportunities for aspiring leaders to develop their skills.
  • Just like I mentioned for managers, ICs can also advocate for leadership being a value at your organization. This is everyone’s opportunity and responsibility. At PI, our leadership principles are known as FABRIC and are used to give people shout-outs in Slack and awards at monthly company meetings. 
  • When interviewing for a role, ask about the company’s leadership and development initiatives. If you’re being interviewed by an IC on the team, ask them if they feel comfortable speaking up or if they feel their opinion is valued. Ask them how their manager supports their professional development. 
  • If you’re already at a company, make sure your manager knows that leadership is important to you. It’s okay to say, “I know I haven’t brought this up before, but I just realized how important this is to my happiness here.”

2. Managers need to truly value their individual contributors. 

Managers need to foster an environment where ICs feel empowered to speak up and see the value ICs bring to the table. Great managers who are leaders know they need to rely on ICs who understand and contribute to the goals of the team and the organization. Self-awareness at the IC level means nothing if we can’t talk to our manager about how our behavioral styles manifest in our work and what support we need in order to be successful as individuals and as a team.

  • Be self-aware and take the time to understand each individual on your team. Know, care about, and support their goals. Celebrate their strengths and clearly communicate things that might hold them back from being viewed as a leader. Understand what motivates them and utilize their skills to make you, and the team, shine.
  • Take our course Developing Self Aware Leaders.
  • Listen and advise without judgement. Not all of your direct reports are looking to follow your path. It’s okay if you have an individual contributor who doesn’t want to be a manager. Find ways to support them on their journey. 
  • Make sure you are self-aware. Know the strengths that showcase your leadership skills and where your gaps may cause stress for your manager or team. If you’re not sure, ask people who you admire who will be honest and be open to what they have to say. 
  • At every meeting with your manager, ask what you can stop, start, or change. This will provide them with the opportunity to bring things to your attention and it will, hopefully, allow you to share your feedback on things they can stop, start, or change for you as well. (This is part of managing up. Keep reading to learn more.)

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3. Individual contributors need to manage up.  

sales manager coaches sales account executive

Managing up is a significant part of being a leader as an IC. Managers, whether they’re leaders or not, don’t always know the full extent of what’s happening on the team. They’re also not mind readers. ICs need to give feedback when something needs to start, stop, or change, speak up when something is causing stress or confusion, and suggest alternative solutions if something could be done more efficiently. All of us have the opportunity to contribute ideas from other experiences in life to help our team succeed.

One key to success here is knowing your manager’s behavioral profile. How do they like to receive feedback? You can find this information in the Manager’s Guide to Reference Profiles. If you’re not sure what your manager’s Reference Profile is, ask. If they’re not sure, simply let them know you have some feedback and ask how they’d like you to deliver it.

  • Be open to hearing—and truly listening—when your direct reports are telling you something isn’t working or something needs to change. Building trust and creating an environment that provides psychological safety are vital and should be a manager’s top priority.
  • Managers who are leaders will crave upward feedback and understand the benefits of building trust on their team. It takes time to build trust, but the payoff is immeasurable.
  • Ask for honest feedback at every team and 1:1 and take it seriously. Would you rather be spending your time celebrating successes or constantly interviewing and onboarding because people keep leaving? 
  • If your manager is new, help them onboard quickly. I have a document that is sort of a “Managing Trish 101.” When I get a new manager, I share it with them. Its purpose is to align on and set clear expectations. It highlights information related to my Controller reference profile and personal development chart and links to our relationship guide. Additionally, it shares my preferred working schedule, short and long term goals, values, my “why” (what motivates me to stop hitting the snooze button in the morning), and even the types of projects I love and don’t love. It captures the things they’d need to know about how to keep me motivated and the things that might cause conflict so we can talk through them from the start. 
  • Ask your manager how they like to receive feedback and provide it when appropriate. They aren’t mind readers and they’re doing their best. Assume good intent, but speak up when there’s a negative impact on you or the team. Work to build trust and assume they have your best interests in mind. If proven otherwise, talk to another manager, mentor, or people operations/business partner.

4. Individual contributors manage without managing. 

If you think individual contributors aren’t managers, think again. Just because we don’t have direct reports doesn’t mean we don’t have some similar responsibilities. If we’re leaders who are managing a project or on a project as part of a team, we’re managing people. We’re asking questions, challenging assumptions, speaking up when something isn’t going according to plan, and having difficult conversations with team members.

  • There are several ways to provide leadership opportunities to those who seek them. There are plenty of projects looking for a leader. 
  • When an IC on your team is part of a project, get feedback and specific examples from others on if they demonstrated leadership. 
  • Be the person people want to work on projects with. Don’t be the person who does the bare minimum just to check the box. If you’re not sure how others viewed your participation, ask. Always seek, be open to, and listen to feedback. Surround yourself with people who are trying to help you on your leadership quest. 
  • It’s okay if people want to vent to you, but don’t become a gossip factory and don’t let issues fester or allow conflict to grow. Coach people on how to have difficult conversations that are solution based. You don’t have to take on their problems, but you have an opportunity to teach them how to solve them productively. 
  • Lift up others and celebrate their successes. Fun fact: they may end up being your manager one day! 
  • Others should view you as a mentor. Strive to be a leader that inspires others.

5. Individual contributors need to participate in the business strategy.

Being an individual contributor who’s also a leader means understanding and participating in all areas of the business. You have the opportunity to make change in any place where your strengths can contribute to achieving results. To do this, you have to stay on top of organizational communication, key initiatives, goals, and changes. You have to know where to go to get answers and how to go about getting those answers. You have to understand the big picture, connect the dots, communicate those dots to others, and be a positive contributor. Lead by example.

  • Be honest and transparent about what you’re trying to accomplish as a company and as a team. 
  • Encourage your direct reports to interact with and participate in projects with people in other departments. 
  • Look for work for people who are looking for leadership opportunities. The effort you spend helping these employees will pay off in the long run, even if they fail.
  • Stay up to speed on everything that’s happening in your industry and your area of expertise. To be a leader means to know what’s going on so you can provide suggestions and are in-the-know on why certain decisions are being made. 
  • Ask your manager or other department leaders how you can help. Are there projects you can take on, either in your department or in other areas of the organization? Can you help plan the next team/company outing? Can you get involved with DEIB efforts at your company? Did someone leave or is someone going on leave who has work that needs to be covered?


Trish is a Staff, Learning Experience Designer at PI. They're a fan of music, photography, nature, dogs, and the Oxford comma.

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