Don’t want to manage? Here’s how you can still progress

Any firm offering clear career paths for highly skilled professionals who find line management a confining, distractive chore may be giving itself a crucial edge in the war for talent

Confident mid adult businesswoman writing new ideas onto a adhesive note over a glass wall.

Claire Walsh has worked in HR for eight years, but hasn’t become a manager. What looks at first glance like a career in stasis does not reflect a lack of ability, ambition or opportunity. It’s all part of her plan and that of her employer, a US-based payroll and tax platform called Remote.

Walsh, who is based in Dublin, joined the company as a so-called individual contributor (IC) in November 2021. In her role as senior people partner, she has no one reporting directly to her. Instead, she helps the firm’s senior team in areas such as learning and development, talent management and strategic planning. 

Under this arrangement, Walsh gets to do more of what she enjoys most about her profession, unhindered by any line-management responsibilities. Meanwhile, Remote benefits from her ability to focus her specialist knowledge on meeting the top-level needs of the business. 

Walsh believes that the growing number of employers that have started offering IC roles in recent years could gain a significant competitive advantage in the struggle to recruit and retain highly skilled people.

“For so long, the only way to advance in an organisation was to become a line manager. That makes no sense to me,” she says. “People want to apply their expertise to meaningful work, but you don’t have to be a manager to do that. Managers almost have to sideline themselves and care more about the people who report to them, which can be hard. While that can bring a lot of satisfaction, it’s not for everyone – and that’s OK.”

Where ICs might fit into the future workforce

While Walsh’s job entails a lot of collaboration, perhaps the most natural fit for ICs are highly skilled project-based roles that can be performed largely autonomously.

Over the past two years, Remote has established a formal career track for its ICs, who will usually focus on a single specialism and gradually become an expert in that field as they advance through its numerous levels. The principal IC level, for instance, equates to a senior directorship on its standard management track. Walsh’s role is equivalent to that of a senior manager, so she has a clear route to take in the organisation if she so wishes.

This highly structured approach is a sign that Remote has come to view the recruitment and development of ICs from entry level upwards as a key part of its competitive strategy. By contrast, tech giants such as Salesforce and Meta seem to have introduced such positions in recent months as more of an emergency cost-efficiency measure, converting many line managers to ICs in a bid to delayer their organisations.

How ICs could make senior roles more inclusive 

Pleo, a Danish fintech firm specialising in expenses management, employs about 20 senior ICs. People can enter the company as an IC in a range of disciplines, but some – engineering and product architecture, for instance – lend themselves more to such work than others. People can switch from managers to ICs and vice versa (as is the case at Remote) if suitable vacancies arise. 

Jessie Danyi became a full-time senior IC at Pleo last year, having joined the company as its head of people in August 2018. Her job title is now somewhat more opaque: belonging and impact lead. Danyi changed roles after the explosive growth of the business – from 40 to 550 employees in three-and-a-half years – and her own team made her rethink the kind of work she really relished. 

Her experience also highlights how the unconventional scope of an IC role can suit certain people well. Danyi, who lives with epilepsy and chronic pain, has found that working nearly autonomously, reporting to just a few senior stakeholders, enables her to cope more effectively with these conditions.

While managing people can bring a lot of satisfaction, it’s not for everyone – and that’s OK

“When I led a team, I had to be careful about what a more junior member could read into my mood. They might infer that they’d done something wrong when I’d actually be in 10/10 pain and less able to hide it than usual,” she explains. “An IC role tends to require fewer meetings, so I have less need to remove them from my calendar.” 

Danyi adds that she still has to “give people disclaimers about my health, but having that conversation with senior executives is simpler – they take it more as an ‘FYI’. When I had my own department to run, I had to worry more about how such news might affect the team members and their work.”

Having more autonomy and fewer team meetings doesn’t necessarily mean that ICs are individuals in all senses of the word. Walsh points out that she does report to a manager, although they conduct “more of a sounding-board relationship. We have a weekly one-to-one where I run the tasks I think I need to do by her and seek her views. This differs from when I was starting out in HR, when I needed far more hand-holding.”

What potential ICs should know about their career options

The freedom to apply your specialist skills in relative peace without the stress of managing people sounds like a dream for many, especially members of gen Z, whose apparent desire for purpose-driven work may draw them more towards IC roles than those in management. 

But there may be a lower career ceiling for ICs – which Walsh freely accepts, noting that it would be exceedingly rare for someone at the director level not to be managing anyone. With this in mind, Remote recently created another level in its hierarchy known as expert lead, which adds responsibilities such as project management to the job spec. This could prevent a potential exodus of senior ICs who might otherwise feel that they’ve progressed as far as they can in the organisation.

If the experiences of Sarah Davie, head of partnerships at forex specialist Spartan FX, are anything to go by, firms offering IC roles are likely to be more innovative and flexible employers than most. 

“For many years, I worked at a company that was very rigid and behind the times,” she says. “I think there’s a call for a fresh approach to the way we operate and the culture of work as a whole.” 

Having become an IC with her current employer, Davie is “not managing anyone, as it’s rare for a person to have both skill sets. This fits with our business needs, as we want the right people with the right expertise to help us achieve our goals. It leaves me the time to do what I do best.”