September 15, 2022

Progression for All — Why Laying a Path for Both Individual Contributors and Managers Is Important

Melissa Malec

All too often, we think the only way ‘up’ in business is through management. 

In the generations that came before us, that might have been the case. But there are plenty of people who don’t want to be a manager. Are they supposed to accept that they’ll never progress past a certain level in their career?

Absolutely not and it seems that others agree. 

It’s now the norm for progression frameworks to have dual career paths, one for managers and one for individual contributors (ICs).

Laying these two paths allows businesses to acknowledge, reward and set clear performance expectations for everyone in the business so that they’re able to give the best of themselves to their role and see that progression is possible at the company. 

If you want to get the best out of your people, then you’ll want to make sure you do the same.

In this article, we’re outlining the importance of including both in your framework, breaking down the difference between managers and ICs, and showing you how to communicate these differences and opportunities to your people.

Importance of Including Both in Your Progression Framework

Have you ever tried to fit a square peg into a round hole? 

Most children when learning shapes will try and fail to do so. But eventually, they learn that just because you want something to fit doesn’t always mean it will. 

You could force the peg into the hole by reshaping it but unlike shapes, your people have their own preferences about where they fit and what shape they want to be.

So yes, you could upskill your people to manage but not everyone wants to be a manager and their skillset may have better uses.

There’s More Than One Way Up (Or There Should Be)

We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again. Not everyone wants to be a manager.

Some engineers want to spend all day coding, not strategising the direction of the team.

By including a path for both ICs and managers, you’re making it possible for both to perform at their best and progress. 

People want to go and stay where they feel valued and where there’s room for growth that aligns with their professional goals.

In fact, 40% of employees leave jobs for better career development opportunities

That means there’s not only a need for you to offer progression for all but an opportunity to attract those who have left companies where there wasn’t a clear path forward.

With dual career paths, you also leave open the possibility to switch from IC to manager and from manager to IC. This is known as ‘squiggly’ career progression.

‘Squiggly’ career progression doesn’t follow the traditional career ladder and it’s becoming an increasingly popular option for employees. 

It’s great for those who want to try something new or who discover they’re unhappy with the path they’re currently on.

They’re Both Important to the Success of Your Business

It’s not just about offering a path to your people so that they feel fulfilled, it’s about creating an environment where everyone can perform and leverage their skills to help the business succeed.

Businesses of a certain size can’t operate to their full potential without both managers and ICs.

And that includes ICs at senior levels such as level 5. Experts in specialities can innovate and ideate with years of experience behind them informing their decisions and prioritisation. They can also upskill and coach others in the business on their speciality.

It’s clear that good managers are vital to a business. They make sure their team is working efficiently and effectively to accomplish shared business goals, they support the development of employees and can determine the experience of their direct reports which has an impact on retention.

With both managers and ICs being equally valuable to the business their pay needs to reflect that. When laying the path for both to progress you should organise their levels to the same salary bands.

The Difference Between a Manager and an Individual Contributor

If you’re going to have both in your career framework, it's important to understand where they’re different and how your framework can reflect these differences.

First, let’s clear something up. Managers will have specialisms that allow them to individually contribute to the business and ICs can have direct reports that they manage. 

The difference is all in how they spend the majority of their time.

Defining a Manager

Managers spend at least 60% of their time managing. 

The rest of their time can go towards their speciality whether that be in marketing, product, engineering or another team entirely. 

Our Head of Growth manages three people which takes up a lot of her time (yep, at least 60% of it). The rest of her time at work can go toward specialist projects such as building an ROI calculator that communicates the value of Learnerbly to a business's bottom line.

That 60% of her time goes towards capability creation—leading our team and enabling us to be high performers.

Like our Head of Growth, most Managers have more than one direct report. It’s even possible that a manager will manage an individual contributor who is on a higher level of the career framework to them. 

Let’s say that there is a level 4 team manager in your marketing team but the business needs a level 5 product marketer to help reposition your product ahead of Series B. So you hire an IC with that expertise and give them the title and salary to match.

It’s okay for that level 5 IC to report to your level 4 manager. 

Just because someone on the team is at a certain level, does not mean they need to manage the people in their department who are on lower ones. You need their time to go towards repositioning your product while your level 4 manager can manage the team as a whole.

All managers are responsible for aligning the work of their team to the goals of the business, enabling growth and driving performance.

Defining an Individual Contributor

If a manager is someone who spends 60% of their time managing, then an individual contributor spends at least 60% of their time working on their speciality.

That 60% is spent on creating value through their specialist knowledge.
You can have two types of ICs — one that has direct reports and one that doesn’t. 

Our Learning Curator, MJ, is a perfect example of an IC who spends a small portion of her time managing. She manages Jess, an Associate Learning Curator. 

While MJ takes the time to support and align Jess’s work to the objectives of the business, she spends the majority of her time creating value through her curation projects.

Jess is then an example of an IC who does not manage other employees in the business and spends all of her time within her speciality.

Specialities vary across the business and even within departments. People Experience is a speciality but team members can be specialists in People Operations, People Experience Design, People Partnering or Talent Partnering.

Accounting for These Differences When Measuring Performance

How your people spend their time dictates how you measure their performance. That’s one of the reasons why they should have their own path in a career framework. 

If you’re using the Learnerbly whitelabel career framework, then these paths and differences are already accounted for and ready to use.

But how did we account for them? What we’re really asking is: how do you measure the performance of each path?

Performance for both ICs and managers is measured against seven core capabilities. Each level has expectations outlined within these capabilities so that employees have clarity over what they need to be doing to perform and what is expected of them in order to progress.

Of those seven capabilities (which you can see in the image above), five are measured in the same way whether you’re an IC or a manager. That’s because everyone in the business is expected to have the same business knowledge, as well as communication, problem-solving, leadership and delivery skills in relation to their level.

We measure scope and role expertise differently because they need to be tailored not just to ICs and managers but to individual departments. An engineer’s role expertise will be much different to that of a People person, for example. 

To put that into an IC and management context, an IC will not be expected to align their team to the goals of the business but a manager will. Their scope and role expertise descriptions need to reflect that.

Below is an example of an IC role expertise expectations at level 4 next to an example of a manager’s at level 4.

All that’s left to do now is effectively communicate your dual career paths to your people.

Communicating the Distinction and Opportunity to Your People

In your company-wide launch of the career progression framework, you’ll want to take the opportunity to explain the two different paths to progression to your people. 

For some, it might be a relief to hear that their lack of managerial ambitions won’t limit their opportunities to progress at the company. For others, it might be reassuring to hear that they can switch tracks if they decide that they want to give management a go or that in the end it really isn’t for them. 

And everyone will feel good about the fact that no matter what track they choose, they’re valued equally in the business and the salary bands reflect that.

Here are three things you should do to communicate the importance and impact of having dual career paths as part of your framework.

Clearly Breakdown the Difference

Similar to what we did at the beginning of this article, you should use your presentation of the career framework to outline what makes an IC and a manager different.

You’ll want to cover the definitions and how their differences impact how performance is measured. 

You can reference the Learnerbly presentation here or find it in our resource hub for the career framework template.

Reassure Them That Progression Comes with Equal Reward

At first, your people might not understand that salary banding levels are equal among managers and ICs. 

This is an important point to drive home because you’re undoing societal norms where managers are valued and rewarded more than ICs. It’s the basis for most people pursuing a management role in the first place.

You can show the part of your framework that has salary bandings listed and highlight where a level 3 manager and IC fall as an example and speak to how it's the same at every progression level.

Explain the Opportunity to Switch Paths

Your people should know upfront that just because they’re on one path doesn’t mean the other is closed to them, no matter how far down it they’ve travelled.

In your presentation, you can walk them through scenarios of managers discovering they want to spend more of their workdays on specialist projects, ICs stumbling on a passion for leadership or someone early in their career not sure which path to take. 

Giving examples paints a story that they can relate to and brings the opportunity for a squiggly career at your company to life.

Why bother?

With clear examples and fair opportunities (equal pay for equal levels irrespective of the path they’re on), your people will have clarity over expectations and the potential for growth. 

So they can see themselves growing in your business, while they thrive and deliver their best work.

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