Becoming an individual contributor leader

A common image of leadership at work is a manager who grows increasingly complex or large teams. Senior individual contributors also must develop leadership skills to progress in their careers but without being responsible for a team. They instead cultivate thought leadership and influence without formal authority.

To grow as a senior user experience researcher, I had to learn to be more intentional about what I was doing at work. I wanted my work hours to be meaningful and productive. I also wanted to do work that would demonstrate how I was maturing as a senior individual contributor, one who has impact across multiple products and broad organizations.

Working across teams and organizations required some thought. I had examples of leadership across teams and products: influencing thinking in product teams you are not affiliated with, making sense of a problem for the whole organization, or mentoring others. But these leadership opportunities are not crisply defined, and more personal effort is required to measure and identify success. In contrast, doing user experience research for a product team felt more straightforward in that my work had to keep up with the product development cycle (a built-in driver for tactical work), and successful work directly results in a product launch.

Leadership on a broad scale needs vision, initiative, and fearlessness.

Demonstrating leadership as a senior individual contributor requires getting past any shyness. You need to be confident that the work is important and worthy enough to initiate and that you are uniquely qualified to spearhead it. You have to be comfortable with telling others about how valuable the work is — and why.

Find leadership projects you are passionate about

I identify leadership projects I am excited about and genuinely believe in. Anything less would ultimately drain my energy. For example, I like developing models of user behavior, so I am happy to dive into any projects that help a wider audience understand the problems of large advertisers and ad agencies. Having passion helps me sustain these projects in the long run.

Name your leadership project

A former manager advised me to name any repeated activity to make it feel concrete and impressive. A name gives a powerful theme and vision to work that might otherwise seem disparate and unintentional. It helps you promote the value of what you are doing, not just the discrete activities. You then prioritize work that is befitting of the name. I have a “Research Leadership” project that covers my activities mentoring other researchers, presenting at conferences, and writing articles: work that elevates the profession and the researchers I work with.

Know what success looks like

Demonstrating impact across a broad organization as an individual contributor leader requires crafting a narrative—backed with evidence—since there won’t be an overt marker like a product launch to prove success. You must know where you are going and what you are ultimately trying to do so you know when you get there. Last year, I helped develop a large advertiser user role framework that my product team used to talk about the complex task workflows that their features needed to support. One goal I had was for the user role framework to be a common language for other product teams as well. Therefore, I knew success would look like having other teams adopt or be influenced by the user roles.

Honor your commitment to leadership projects as you would to tactical product work.

Be diligent about moving your leadership projects forward. Even if the projects are more personal in nature, with no one explicitly demanding the work, they are important enough for you and your career to take them seriously. You can’t grow without them.

Track your progress on the leadership project

To help me make progress on long-haul projects, I started tracking my accomplishments and evidence of impact and leadership. I learned while I was at Google to write weekly snippets of completed tasks and actions for transparency with my team. My purpose now is to communicate with myself what I have accomplished, what I need to do next strategically, and collect ongoing evidence of the impact of my projects.

Good things to track

  • Reports and artifacts you created that others can read
  • Concrete activities that moved projects forward
  • Conversations that generated an idea that you want to work on
  • Times that you presented or shared your work or an idea
  • Requests to share your expertise with an individual or team
  • Kudos you have received

Bad things to track

  • Tasks that you wouldn’t mention in a performance review (like filing expense reports)
  • Meetings you attended but didn’t contribute to or draw an idea or action from (and maybe you shouldn’t go to those meetings)
  • Anything that is a basic job expectation such as answering emails (but it may be worth noting and addressing if it’s absorbing too much time)

I track my accomplishments against my various product and leadership projects so I can better see the themes of my work. Example:

== Product X research [bread and butter work] ==
* Wrote up XYZ research report
* Talked with Sally about research needed for new feature
* New product version to be launched, addressing the user problem that I identified
== User roles framework [self-organized project] ==
* Got feedback on user roles framework and a case study idea from Charlie
* Revised framework doc based on feedback
* Helped Lucy prioritize her design using the framework
== Organizational leadership [influence across multiple teams] ==
* Organized and recruited presenters from different verticals for the cross-org brown bag
* Presented user role framework to another team that wants to develop a similar framework
== Citizenship [professional service work] ==
* Reviewed x conference proposals
* Interviewed y job candidates

Make a habit of checking in on your leadership projects

I keep a running online document of my accomplishments. I spend 15 minutes a week updating the doc to appreciate what I have completed and decide how things are going. Investing this time each week to check in on my career progress feels like a worthy indulgence and is a nice ritual to end the week.

The accomplishments should truly be moving a project closer to a goal. If I don’t have an accomplishment for a project that week, I ask myself why. It’s OK if something else important and valuable took priority or if it was a short work week. But projects should not be neglected for weeks at a time without a gut check. And as a project matures, there should be evidence of someone being influenced by the work.

It’s also helpful to revisit the projects themselves periodically. Has one of the projects become less interesting? Are these projects how you would like to characterize the value that you offer? Do you need to re-frame the projects to make them look more like what you are trying to do as a senior individual contributor?

Talk about your leadership projects in your performance review

The important ending for demonstrating leadership as an individual contributor is to be able to speak to it at performance review time. Leadership projects do not need to conclude with a champagne toast or splashy keynote engagement to be considered a success. Your notes about key achievements will hold the concrete evidence of the value you are contributing and the impact of your work and help you craft the narrative about why your leadership project was meaningful.

I’ve been thinking of individual contributor leadership this way for a few years now and have found it helpful to keep growing at work as well as to appreciate my accomplishments. I would love to hear your thoughts and experience with becoming an individual contributor leader.

Thanks to Andrea Zeller, Behzod Sirjani, and Prateek Sarkar for feedback on earlier drafts of this post.