How to Be A Leader As An Individual Contributor
When I speak at conferences, I frequently talk to young marketers. One common question they ask is “As an individual contributor, how can I be a leader, if I don’t ‘lead’ a team?” It certainly would be nice if you have a team that you can lead, but it’s not absolutely necessary. I tell them that the pre-requisite of leadership is not having a team to “lead.” Leadership comes in different facets. One of them is how you conduct yourself doing your job or working with your peers.
Here are 5 ways to become an effective leader as an individual contributor:
1. Know your strengths to provide value-add
You need to have a strong grasp of your own strengths. Working on a project is like playing a soccer game. To play a game effectively, you need to know what position(s) you want to play: defence, midfield or attack. Understanding your own strengths allows you to inform the project lead where he or she can better place you in a team. Most of the time, the placement is based on your current job scope. For example, you get pulled into a project because of your role in IT. Your engagement for the project is likely related to what you are doing in the IT department.
Say there is a project to source a technology vendor for a new marketing program and nobody on the team is responsible for vendor research. If your strength happens to be in conducting research, you can volunteer to take on the responsibility to showcase your expertise.
Yes, it’s more work, but it’s also an opportunity to demonstrate what else you can do, in addition to providing insights related to IT. Once you complete the research and provide your findings and recommendations, your team will come to look to you for answers.
Being a subject matter expert is one way to demonstrate leadership.
2. Tie your projects to business goals
Most young individual contributors are very good at getting things done. That is great, but that is not good enough if you want to be a leader. One leadership trait is that you need to be able to articulate the impact of what you accomplish in the context of business goals or revenue.
Do you know your company’s or your group’s business goals? Can you quantify your contribution to the project in relation to overall business goals? The ability to crystalize your contribution shows that you can think like senior managers and communicate in a way that they can understand. Consequently, you can help rally others to communicate their accomplishments in a results-driven manner. In a way, you lead by example.
3. Comprehend organizational structure, processes and decision makers
Most individual contributors only know their direct managers and team members. It’s important to know how your team fits into the overall corporate machine. Understand how your team works with other teams and who your key internal stakeholders are. Having that holistic view can shape conversations with your management and suggest ideas on how to better support your stakeholders.
Even though a company has a corporate culture, each business or product group can have its own vibe with unique processes and key influencers. This is tribal knowledge and usually is not documented anywhere. Being “in the know” shows that you know how to manoeuvre within organizations to get things done.
4. Plan and execute
Individual contributors usually focus on tactical execution. The overall mentality from individual contributors is “tell me what needs to be done. I’ll get it done for you.” That’s great, but it’s not what a leader does. A leader not only gets things done but also engages in the overall planning process. Plan out the projects, identify the gaps, address the gaps, put the team together and more. If you want to lead, you also need to go extra miles to plan and strategize.
5. Share credit and recognize others’ contributions
One of the most important leadership traits is to appreciate the other team members’ efforts. A sense of empathy goes far with your team members, such as a simple “thank you” and “please”. Recognize team members who go above and beyond. Everything we do in a corporation is teamwork. It’s OK to share credit, even though you do a good chunk of the work. It’s good karma. What comes around, goes around.
You don’t need a team to lead
As an individual contributor, your job is to demonstrate to senior managers that you have leadership traits and you think holistically. Find opportunities to showcase that whenever you can.
I recently completed my 2nd book, Effective Sales Enablement. This book is written from a marketer’s perspective on how to enable the sales team as a marketer. It’s not a leadership book per se. But if you are marketing leaders and are interested in how to plan and implement initiatives to better support your sales team, this book is for you.
Leadership is not only about leading or assembling a team. The core is about how we conduct ourselves and our ability to think and act strategically, being empathetic and getting things done.