People with titles are not always influential, nor do they make major contributions to the organisation’s success. Conversely there are some people without a managerial title who wield a good deal of influence and make great contributions, regardless of their title.
These people are the highly professional individual contributors. In many cases they have deliberately chosen not to pursue a managerial career, preferring the sense of mastery from technical work or wanting to avoid the duties associated with being a manager, including budgets, reports, overlapping stakeholder meetings and the never-ending people issues.
They may be chemical engineers in an oil company, software developers in a tech giant, or a fashion designer in a boutique label. What they have in common is that they have no one reporting to them, yet they make a huge contribution and wield strong influence on the success of their firms.
Michael Eisner, President of Disney in the 80’s, once talked about the importance of taking care of the people in organizations who make unique, pivotal contributions, and who are easy to overlook. “In Disney,” he said, “These people are our animators.” They were the people who conceived the endearing cartoon characters and brought them to life through their craft of animation.
There had never been a better time to be an individual contributor. Here are the reasons why:
Highly skilled professionals have become disproportionately more effective in the digital age. The tools have allowed them to supercharge and leverage their skills in a way that was no possible in the analog age.
Steve Jobs made this observation about software developers — who are, by definition, specialists. “I observed something fairly early on at Apple, which I didn’t know how to explain then, but have thought a lot about it since. Most things in life have a dynamic range in which average to best is at most 2:1. For example, if you go to New York City and get an average taxi cab driver versus the best taxi cab driver, you’ll probably get to your destination with the best taxi driver 30% faster. And an automobile: What’s the difference between the average car and the best? Maybe 20%? The best CD player versus the average CD player? Maybe 20%? So 2:1 is a big dynamic range for most things in life. Now, in software, and it used to be the case in hardware, the difference between the average software developer and the best is 50:1; Maybe even 100:1.”
Due to the super leverage enabled by technology, the modern company employees are able to bring in ever more revenue per head compared to the analog age.
Based on data from Visual Capitalist, Apple employees bring in the most revenue among tech companies, with each employee bringing in an average of $1.85 million in revenue. The next closest company on the list is Facebook, which makes about $1.62 million in revenue per employee, and then Google’s parent company Alphabet, which makes about $1.25 million per employee.
The modern organisation has never been flatter. The once steep org pyramid with multiple layers of middle-management has proven to be ineffective. To catch up with tech giants and digital first startups, analog companies are going through the so-called ‘agile transformation’ where a key goal is to make itself flatter.
Some companies even push this to an extreme — Buffer has even trialled a work environment without managers, given power back to the expert individual contributors.
Are you thinking of furthering your career path in the individual contributor or the managerial path? Please share your thoughts in the below!
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