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.
The result is that now individual contributors are just as necessary for shaping the direction of their company’s strategy and informing company decisions, as those with 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.
There are at least 4 areas where individual contributors often need help in developing their leadership capabilities: Confidence, Communication, Influence, and Project Leadership.
- Self knowledge and 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 is common to find individual contributors suffering from low self-confidence that’s the 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 leader roles.
- Communication: Their deep knowledge in their technical expertise is 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.
- Influence: 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.
- Project 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 is irrational to expect that individual contributors who have never had any training in group process or team leadership can do this automatically. In my work as a coach, I’ve often been called on the help laboratory teams recover from serious unnecessary divisions and conflict that are the consequences of not getting started properly or running aground because of poor decision-making processes.
Competitive organizations understand that it is not OK to neglect the technical geniuses in formulating strategy, nor to ignore the insights of the sales force on the front line. They also recognize that the communications needed may be hampered by organizational habits of marginalizing those whose influence skills are subpar.
Too often individual contributors have been dismissed as complainers or blamed for ‘poor social skills.’ Make sure your individual contributors are prepared to play the game and get the influence that they deserve and that the company needs.