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How to Go from Individual Contributor to Delegator

Some people thrive when faced with new challenges, eager to climb the proverbial career ladder to the top. Others are content as individual contributors and/or experts in a particular field.

Most people, however, sit somewhere in the middle – content with their current position but excited for and open to new opportunities as they arise. In a startup environment where field promotions are common, and leadership is a priceless commodity, these opportunities are available for those who want it. But, the shift from doer to leader can be easier said than done.

For managers and HR teams in small companies guiding new managers through the growing pains of moving from contributor to delegator, here are some of the most important things to remember about the transition.

Demonstrating an Ability to Lead

Being a rockstar developer isn’t enough to get a promotion – at least not in most companies. You’re looking for the soft skills and intangibles from your team members that point toward success in management. To draw out these characteristics, everyone needs a chance to lead. This can be done through:

  • Stretch Opportunities – Share project opportunities with your top individual contributors, delegating the chance to lead small one-off projects that need good management. See how they handle the oversight of the project, how often they look elsewhere for help, and if they are delegating effectively.
  • Drawing on Contributor Talents for Training – When onboarding new talent, task your best contributors with training support. Have them share expertise, guide people in the office, and introduce new employees to other members of staff. Stay involved as much as you deem necessary but see how they handle the process of bringing someone new on board.
  • Teaching to Delegate – The biggest difference between individual contributor and manager is delegation. The best developers do it all themselves. They are incredibly hands-on, and often wary to give up control of a sensitive project. It can be scary for them to be ultimately responsible for the mistakes made by others on their team.

Coaching and Mentoring Start Early

The shift from individual contributor to a manager who delegates responsibility can be challenging. New managers won’t know the ins and outs of your company’s processes and systems. That’s where mentors come in. Management requires training and the best place to get that is from other managers and executives who have firsthand experience making the transition.

This process starts well before you offer a promotion and onboard them to a new position. It starts as soon as you see the spark of opportunity, and it’s a prime time to bring on a coach who specializes in leadership development and management training. With a guiding hand who has the resources and time to work with your newest managers and potential managers, you can be sure they are emotionally ready for the transition, which is a substantial shift.

Learning to Communicate

Another area where individual contributors often struggle is communication. Being a manager means constant communication – not just to their superiors, but to members of their team. Taking the big picture goals shared by the executive team and translating them to the issues a team cares most about can be difficult. It’s not as easy as simply reiterating the specific goal or request. There needs to be a well-structured, carefully communicated outline of why things are being done and the expectations for how the team will deal with them.

At the same time, many new managers struggle to adjust to the different communications styles their team members best respond to. Likely used to interacting with a much smaller number of people, those new to management may use a blanket approach that can be ineffective at communicating key points to a diverse team.

Another challenge faced by new managers is the increase in criticism and careful evaluation of their job performance. Individual contributors who are incredibly good at what they do may not be used to hearing negative feedback or criticism, but it’s par for the course as a manager. Not because the job is harder or there are unfair expectations, but because management oversees the performance and results of a whole team. It’s not just about them – it’s about the company and their particular segment of it. That’s a hard mindset shift to make.

The Next Step in Management Training for Individual Contributors

If you have a hot shot developer or project manager poised to take the leap to the next rung on the ladder, take the time to evaluate how you think they will handle the transition. Management isn’t a good fit for everyone, and some need more support than others in advance of such a promotion.

Even after taking on the mantle of leadership, young managers frequently need mentorship, training, and coaching to better understand the gaps in their knowledge, improve their communication skills, and shift from a doer to a leader.

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