Each week, I respond to a question submitted by a reader. Today’s issue is one I’ve faced more than once over the years. The question is: In an increasingly team-based world, what is the role of the individual contributor?
Let’s start with a working definition of an individual contributor. Individual contributors work primarily alone; their work can be accomplished in a largely independent fashion, and they are not part of an on-going team.
So is there a place for these people in your organization? Yes, under the right circumstances. However, if you’re trying to build a team, the options for an individual contributor may be limited.
Think about a baseball team – if you’re the coach and you have a second baseman who says, “I want to play on the team, I just don’t want to be part of the team.” As the coach, how would you respond? You may want to get a new second baseman! In a team-based organization, you need people to be on the team.
When is it appropriate to place someone in an individual contributor role?
- When there are too few members to create a real team.
- When the individual possesses a unique talent or ability but doesn’t want to be on a team.
- When the work can be done in a highly independent fashion.
- When you’re not trying to build a team.
What does an individual contributor need to excel?
I believe individual contributors and teams have very similar needs. As a leader, you’ve got to be sure both get what they need, regardless of your structure. Here’s a partial list of things every individual contributor needs…
Clear expectations – Because individual contributors largely work alone, the need for clear expectations is magnified. When a member of a team gets off track, a fellow team member can help redirect. Someone working alone doesn’t have that option.
Clear accountability – In a high performing team setting, accountability should come primarily from the team. With individual contributors, accountability is provided by the supervisor. Regardless of structure, accountability contributes to enhanced performance. Be sure to give your individual contributors the gift of accountability too!
A sense of belonging – High performing teams have an outstanding sense of community. Working alone can rob people of this opportunity. Without a team, maintaing a connectedness with others is more difficult, but isolation must be combated.
Linkage to the big picture – Independent work must be linked to the vision and mission. In a team context, this should be part of the ongoing conversation. For individual contributors, again, it is the supervisor who must fill the gap. People need to know how their work connects to the bigger picture.
My final thought is to be thoughtful. You may find yourself leading both teams and individual contributors. Although their needs may be similar, you’ll have to be deliberate to meet the needs of both groups.[GLS_Shield]