Achieving Success Outside of the Pack

“Let’s be perfectly clear: I’m talent, not management.”

Who said this? Bette Midler? J.D. Salinger? Michael Jordan or Johnnie Cochran? Maybe it was your family accountant or the pastry chef at that French four-star down the street. It might have been uttered by any of countless other performers, singles players, do-it-yourselfers and soloists — professionals whose job description focuses on “doing their own thing.” Or maybe you’ve said it or at least thought it.

If you’re among the individual contributors of the world, your temperament and aptitudes impel you to flee the flock and take your fortunes into your own hands. Harriet Rubin, founder of Doubleday’s Currency imprint and author of “Soloing” (HarperBusiness, 1999), says, “I have learned that the word ‘solo’ has two meanings: ‘going it alone’ and ‘being complete in oneself.’ Those who go it alone want — to be free to work on their own, to manage no one but themselves, to find the success that is the true measure of their worth.”

Maybe Edgar Schein, creator of “Career Anchors,” a self-assessment instrument that measures one’s work-related values, was talking about you when he wrote, “If your career anchor [your dominant motivational value] is competence in some technical or functional area — you derive your sense of identity from the exercise of your skills and are most happy when your work permits you to be challenged in those areas. You may be willing to manage others in your technical or functional area, but you aren’t interested in management for its own sake and would avoid general management because you would have to leave your own area of expertise.”

Individual contributors often get the message, subtly or loudly, that it’s “not OK” to be this way. Others will try to make you conform. You can soften your sharp edges and pretend to be one of the gang, but you can’t change your fundamental temperament. You shouldn’t try. Upward mobility in your organization isn’t as important to you as having new challenges. Own up to your autonomous nature. There are plenty of places for you and your gifts in the world of work. Don’t let others confuse what you can do with what you’re suited to do.

Driven Loners

Individual contributors aren’t only wired differently from the joiners, conformists and stability-seekers, but you’re also greatly outnumbered by them. Individual contributors represent less than 15% of the general population. You have markedly different views about career satisfaction, team dynamics and leadership than others. When this is understood, it can lead to a rewarding and productive career. When it’s ignored or misunderstood, it can cause a career train wreck, or at the least a continual sense of being chafed and constrained.

Listen to your fundamental motivational drivers and seek out the kinds of situations, people, settings and work that appeal to your nature. Individual contributors like being recognized for their expertise and are happiest in roles where they command respect as skilled specialists, not broad-based generalists. They’re often in skill-intensive or technical career paths, such as law, accounting, IT, medicine, human resources or research. In addition, since they’re natural strategists and big-picture thinkers, they populate the ranks of noted visionaries, designers, system-builders and planners. You’ll find them in applied research, in a niche e-business start-up or even in the strategic planning department of a mature organization. Where you find them, they’ll be creating something.

Individual contributors frequently don’t like to do things the way others have done them and often don’t like to do anything the same way twice. They love variety and novelty and tend to be bored by jobs that are repetitive or involve “maintenance management” — like managing an assembly line, running a Kinko’s franchise, or stewarding an operation that someone else has created.

Tradition and precedent aren’t comforting to these types; instead, they’re frustrating. Pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box and smashing icons come naturally. You’ll find happy individual contributors in jobs that are project-based. These include, for example, trial attorneys, writers, investment bankers, accountants and consultants.

The Un-Leader

A strong indicator of a bona-fide individual contributor is a disinclination to manage others. Most say they want no part of the current leadership development boom. They’ve heard the “Great Leadership Mantra”: Effective leaders frame and communicate a vision, mobilize and motivate the troops, build high-performing teams and inspire the organization. “I don’t want to do any of that,” you may say. “Just give me a task and leave me alone. We’ll get along fine.”

Actually, many individual contributors supervise others well and happily, particularly if they can avoid politics and the need to adjust their styles. They don’t aspire to lofty roles that interpose multiple layers of subordinates between them and where the action is. They want to be able to get their hands back on the reins of a faltering task at a moment’s notice.

Like it or not, individual contributors do lead, inspire and frame others’ agendas. But as competency-based achievers, they lead by example. When experts display their expertise, they create a model for others.

The good news is that the world of work is coming your way. Large, hierarchical organizations are becoming obsolete. To conformists and organization stalwarts, change management means trying to anticipate and limit the impact of change. For you, it means driving change, mastering new challenges, embracing new environments, fixing things that ain’t broke and looking for new paradigms to shift. Rejoice! Your time has come.

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