How to Develop the Skills Required to Go From Individual Contributor to Manager

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A manager needs to have a vastly different skill set than an individual contributor. This article discusses the differences between the two positions and provides tips on how to make the shift and be successful in a leadership role.

What exactly does it take to be a manager—and do you think you’re ready? Before you respond, let that question sink and run through the instinctual response in your head: Did you answer “yes” right away? If you felt any hesitations, can you pinpoint what they were and why you think they came up? 

Transitioning from contributor to manager can be stress inducing, intimidating, and exciting all at the same time. According to Sidney Fuchs, President and CEO at MacAulay-Brown, Inc., “Moving from an individual contributor…to a management position is not just a step up the corporate ladder, but a jump to an entirely new ladder in terms of skills, motivations, perspectives, responsibilities, and impact to the organization.”

This article provides guidance on how to develop your skill set while you make the leap from contributor to manager.

Shifting from Individual Contributor to Manager

Maybe it was your goal to become a manager as soon as you got into this line of work, or perhaps it’s an opportunity that came about unexpectedly. Either way, this is an exciting position, but it will take some time to adjust. Here are three questions to ask yourself:

  1. How do you prepare to make the adjustment from individual contributor to manager? 

  2. How can you demonstrate your management abilities to those you lead? 

  3. What skills will actually help you succeed in this new role? 

Here are six tips to help you make the transition:

1. Understand the difference between the roles

The skills you need as a manager are expansions of the skills you’ve accumulated as an individual contributor. Let’s look at the two job titles:

  • What is an individual contributor? 

Individual contributors are defined as senior professionals who work without people-management responsibilities, who contribute greatly to the organization’s vision and mission. They have:

    • Strong organizational skills

    • Effective interpersonal communication skills

    • Efficient collaborative skills 

    • Proven ability to deliver results

  • What is a manager?

Typically, we define a manager as someone who leads via decision making, delegation, and teaching people around them. But in our modern-day society, this definition extends beyond these characteristics. Managers are:

    • Knowledgeable

    • Reliable

    • Experienced 

    • Confident 

    • Respected (and respectful)

Individual contributors are tactical doers while managers are strategic thinkers and leaders. In order to be successful as an individual contributor, you need to deliver results. In order to be successful as a manager, you need to help others succeed. 

2. Seek out opportunities to demonstrate leadership

You never learn without actually doing, so seek out opportunities to demonstrate your leadership skills. At this moment, you have extensive experience in your field as an individual contributor. Make sure to go beyond just looking and instead, actively ask to help. For example, when a project comes up that you feel confident about, volunteer to take the lead. 

If opportunities like this do not arise in your current position, look outside your work. Look into networking groups for opportunities to engage in not only management roles, but voluntary ones where you can develop skills and build professional relationships. 

3. Continue learning

As you know, learning doesn’t end when you leave school. We live in a constantly changing world, which means we need to always be on the lookout for learning opportunities. This holds true with the management role you have your eyes on. 

Luckily, there are many resources out there for your continual pursuit to learn. When you join Experts Exchange®, you gain access to a global network of subject-matter experts and a vast library of IT resources. Here are a few of the many courses we offer to help prepare you for a management role: 

  • Strategic Planning SkillsThis course enables you to hone your understanding of your organization’s culture, operations, and market positioning.

  • Communication Strategies: This course discusses paraverbal and non-verbal communication skills. You’ll learn how to speak with confidence, listen well, and ask good questions.

  • Leadership and influence: This course reviews how understanding your sense of  leadership and influence allows you to grow with your business. 


4. Change the way you think

Your thought process and the things you have to think about as an individual contributor are largely different than what will occupy your mind as a manager. Every time a member of your team asks a question, it’s an opportunity to teach them something. 

For example, rather than quickly answering the question and getting on with your day, ask them, “What do you think we should do?” By putting this into practice, you will inspire your team to think critically and work things out for themselves rather than solely rely on you. 

5. Find a mentor

Think of a manager you came across in your career who you truly look up to, who is the type of leader you want to be. This is someone who has once been in your shoes, someone who you can lean on and trust during this transition. Ask to meet up for coffee. Come prepared with any questions you may have.

With Experts Exchange’s network of experts and mentors, IT professionals are able to learn from and exchange ideas with thousands of Certified Experts that they would not normally meet. According to a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review, 84% of participants in mentoring programs said that they avoided costly mistakes thanks to their mentor. A total of 69% said that their mentors helped them make better decisions.

6. Be the leader people need

Professor and author Brené Brown wrote in her book, Dare to Lead, that “[An effective leader] is anyone who takes responsibility for recognizing the potential in people and ideas, and has the courage to develop that potential.” Brown defines a leader through four courage skill sets: 

  • Rumbling with vulnerability

  • Living into our values

  • Braving trust 

  • Learning to rise 

Consider how your actions fall into each skill set: Are you the type of leader who shows up during those difficult situations, the manager your team needs versus what you think they need? How can you further thrive and adapt in your new position?

Three Steps to Help You Succeed in Your Management Role

1. Hire people who are more intelligent than you: Great leaders have great employees. According to pharmaceutical entrepreneur, Ewing Marion Kauffman, hiring people smarter than you benefits the entire company. “In doing so, you prevent limiting the organization to the level of your own ability — and you grow the capabilities of your company.”

2. Tell your team members exactly what you want, and make sure you paint what “done” looks like. To further inspire your team, go one step further and ask for their input. Inviting the opinion of your team members will help them feel more connected to the project. 

3. Once your team knows what you want, move out of their way and let them get it done. It may be intimidating to release control and put your trust and the success of the IT project in another individual, but if you’ve hired the right people, there will be nothing to worry about.

4. Try not to be afraid of failure: Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, said in a Business Insider article that, “Failure comes part and parcel with invention. It’s not optional. We understand that and believe in failing early and iterating until we get it right.”

Need more expert advice on transitioning from individual contributor to manager? At Experts Exchange, we help IT professionals succeed at work, whatever their role. You can collaborate with our global network of subject-matter experts to find solutions and new approaches to your technology questions and roadblocks. To access on-demand courses and engage in discussions with our vetted experts, join our community today. 

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