Why your best talent may not want to lead - and how to engage & retain them

ByHanover Team
Posting date: 28 September 2023

Today's competitive job market makes the retention and engagement of top talent paramount. I often discuss with my clients about how to keep talent engaged, and engaging those in non-people leadership roles specifically is becoming a more frequent discussion. The stats seem to back this up; according to Boston Consulting, only 9% of Western non-managers aspire to become a manager.


Individual contributors (ICs), who frequently occupy specialist or technical positions, are indispensable. And for smaller firms, not everyone needs to, or even can, ascend to leadership level. Sometimes, there's simply no room at the top. 


So, how do you ensure career progression and engagement in such situations? I’ll explore these concerns and offer some solutions in this article.

Why don't some people want to lead?

The choice of not taking on leadership roles is multifaceted and rooted in both personal and professional reasons. Probably most obviously, people management positions are notoriously time-intensive. There are more meetings to attend and more responsibilities to juggle - the people aspect can demand significant time. This increased workload can pull you away from the ‘front line’ and the core subject matter of your job, which you might really enjoy and be passionate about. 


Skill mismatch is another important factor. Not every individual has the inherent skills or capabilities required for effective people leadership - even if you’re good at your job, managing people requires an entirely different set of skills and behaviours. Not having strong leadership skills doesn't make someone less competent at their job, but it can make managerial roles a bad fit.


Personality dynamics also play a role. Some people are intrinsically more inclined towards being individual contributors. They may prefer working autonomously, getting to the heart of problems and finding solutions - without the added layer of team dynamics. If that sounds like you, the idea of leading a team, with all of its accompanying interpersonal dynamics, may not appeal.

How can businesses keep individual contributors engaged?

Understanding how to keep individual contributors engaged and motivated is critical for sustained success. These are some ways in which businesses can support ICs:


1. Personal and professional development

Even if someone doesn’t want to be a leader, they probably still want to grow in their career. Businesses can offer opportunities for skill enhancement, training sessions, workshops or certifications that allow ICs to hone and expand their expertise. This not only benefits the individual, but also adds to your company's reservoir of talent. You may also find valuable the blog "Best Leadership Books You Should Read in 2024" on Jooble


2. Facilitate their progression

Crafting clear career pathways that allow for upward mobility without necessarily moving into leadership roles is also important. This might mean creating senior or master-level IC roles that recognise and reward deep expertise and sit parallel with traditional senior leadership roles.


3. Overtly value your individual contributors

It's crucial to ensure that your individual contributors don't feel like second-class citizens. Celebrate their achievements, give them platforms to showcase their work and integrate them into the fabric of your company's culture. Recognising their contributions both privately and publicly can make a significant difference in how valued and included they feel.


4. Encourage non-people management leadership

You can still be a leader without having a team. Encourage individual contributors to take up initiatives, lead projects or become champions of certain causes. Their influence can be magnified by being well-networked within the company, sharing knowledge and mentoring less experienced employees.


5. Challenge the perception of ICs

The traditional notion of career success is senior leadership or people management. Businesses need to actively challenge this notion, showcasing that success can also be measured by depth of expertise, influence and impact.


6. Broaden their roles

Diversify the roles of your individual contributors by encouraging them to represent the company at external events, giving them opportunities to collaborate with different departments or involving them in strategy sessions. This approach enriches their job profile, giving it both breadth and depth.


7. Deepen their roles

As companies evolve, so do roles. Allow individual contributors to diversify their roles, explore adjacent areas of expertise, and become holistic professionals. This not only keeps them engaged, but also brings fresh perspectives to the table.


Importantly, you shouldn’t assume that people want to lead. Have that conversation with them openly - it’s much better to know upfront than put someone into a leadership role that they can’t or don’t want to do. 


It becomes obvious pretty quickly when a new people leader isn’t up to the role - according to Forbes, 58% of managers say they didn’t have management training, and one statistic I’ve come across says that only 10% of people are natural leaders. Sometimes, all that’s required is personal development (which is something that Hanover can help with), but it’s important to put this in place before any roles change.

How to grow your career without becoming a people leader

If you want to grow in your career but don’t want to be a people leader, there are some things you can do to help smooth your path:

1. Advance in your current role - become the industry expert who is consistently pushing boundaries and is a leader in your field

2. Consider switching departments or roles laterally for a fresh perspective

3. Freelancing or consulting can be a lucrative alternative

4. Aim for roles that require deep expertise rather than broad leadership skills

5. Build relationships within and outside your organisation to extend your sphere of influence

6. Reflect on whether you genuinely want to lead a team or if societal norms are pressuring you

Final thoughts…

Flexibility is vital for individual contributors. Leadership isn't confined to managing teams; influence and expertise can wield equal power. For companies, it's crucial to have well-defined career trajectories for individual contributors, mirroring those set for people leader roles.

Let's discuss ways to nurture both leaders and individual contributors in your organisation. Contact us to explore how you can retain and engage talent at all levels.

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