Employees are often promoted to their first leadership position as a result of their performance as individual contributors. These new leaders, therefore, need to make the shift from delivering results themselves to delivering results through others. In some cases, individuals are not promoted to people-leadership roles but rather to larger-scope individual contributor roles. In these types of roles, they are required to influence and deliver results through others, often as project leaders or by working with cross-functional or matrixed teams. Insight Experience is excited to have recently adapted a leadership development program, originally designed for frontline and first-time leaders, into one for individual contributors. Though there were some notable changes to the program design and business simulation, the core learning points remain intact.
Reframe the Leadership Challenges
A Leadership Foundations program often focuses on key leadership skills, such as driving accountability and the prioritization of time and tasks. This same content is applicable to individual contributors as well. Through targeted and robust facilitation, program participants understand how to use their time as a strategic asset and how to prioritize work to ensure key deadlines are met. Participants sift through their work and decide if a task is appropriate for them to do as the project leader, if it’s more appropriate for a project team member, or if a task can be altogether deprioritized. Once a task has been passed along to a team member, participants must take the appropriate steps to ensure each of them is held accountable to their action items.
A Leadership Foundations leadership development program often includes the practice of coaching conversations with direct reports through various role-play activities. By reframing these conversations as practice in having “difficult conversations,” these discussions feel more genuine and applicable to an individual contributor audience. The opportunity to practice having difficult conversations with peers, project team members, and even senior leaders is essential to success in business and across industries. These conversations allow individual contributors to practice the cross-functional conversations they must have daily in order to successfully deliver on client requests.
Maintain the Environment
Many of the same challenges that we present in a people-leadership Leadership Foundations course are used in an individual contributor program — but with small, and important, changes. Let’s say that, instead of implementing and executing promotion plans for her team, an individual contributor must make promotion-planning recommendations to the managers of her team members. Allowing for the opportunity to practice such decision-making is an example of the type of nuanced change we make to individual contributor programs. Overall, the environment, key metrics and goals, and primary challenges all stay the same: drive operational excellence and improve the customer experience, all while increasing revenue and profit margin for the fictional firm.
Focus on Success Stories
Whether it’s a tale of aligning key stakeholders or managing last-minute customer requests, there are always grievances to share about being an individual contributor in a cross-functional environment. Although airing these grievances, especially with a cohort of peers, can be healthy, it is critical to focus on success stories. By sharing best practices and stories of triumphs, everyone learns new skills and techniques, ones they may want to put to use in the future. These programs allow for ample story-sharing among participants, which creates a sense of connection and makes them more open to learning.
Provide Peers for Connection
Finally — and perhaps the most important element of leadership foundations for individual contributors — is connecting participants with peers. A participant’s peers can provide support and can be a steady presence for the discussion of key ideas. In our programs we often talk about the power of turning to a peer for trial runs of difficult conversations or the value of practicing a key communication message with a trusted colleague before communicating it broadly. By putting these individuals into simulation teams and giving them a shared challenge, while simultaneously giving them the opportunity to discuss and network across simulation teams, these individual contributors will leave a leadership program with a new network of peers — and, as a result, a support system.
Though people-leadership may not be in the cards for everyone promoted into a new role, key leadership themes such as prioritization and accountability are applicable across roles and business units. Arming your individual contributors with a network of peers, opportunities to practice difficult discussions, and the skills necessary to influence others will empower and equip an entirely new subset of your leadership population.
Leadership Foundations is a proven program that has been delivered to thousands of new and emerging leaders since its launch. Now, we are excited to bring you this program in a new, asynchronous format. For more information, click below.
Krista Campbell is a Senior Associate Consultant and Karen Maxwell Powell (coauthor) is the General Manager at Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.