Critical Yet Overlooked  

Fundamental changes in many industries have led to a need for individual contributors who can also be effective team leaders, but new research suggests these workers are not getting the training they need.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014
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Your organization may employ IT specialists, sales people or scientific researchers who are at the top of their game. Their technical expertise may be top-notch. But are they able to work well with others? Can they convey information in a manner that their colleagues can clearly understand? Can they listen effectively and delegate responsibly? 

Companies appear to finally be coming around to the importance of providing so-called "individual contributors" with training and development opportunities, according to a new survey from AMA Enterprise, a division of the New York-based American Management Association. The AMA defines individual contributors as employees who may have no direct reports or formal leadership positions yet possess expertise that is critical to their organizations.

These development opportunities are sorely needed, says Jennifer Jones, AMA Enterprise's director.

"Individual contributors may not necessarily be contenders for leadership positions, but they are often in great roles that require skills for influence, persuasion, sales and communication," she says. 

When asked whether their organization makes any special effort to develop individual contributors, 51 percent of the executive and manager respondents from nearly 700 organizations surveyed said theirs did, but only on an ad hoc basis. Thirty-seven percent of those surveyed reported that their senior management has in recent years become more supportive of training and development for individual contributors.

However, 22 percent conceded that their organization generally overlooks individual contributors. Ten percent said they don't currently have programs in place for ICs but plan to create one in the near future, while 11 percent said they don't currently have anything in place and don't expect to in the future.

"Every organization has such people: Key players who get things done despite having no direct management authority," says Jones. "HR would do well to have a more systematized and intentional development platform for this important group of employees."

Although training budgets have been slashed in recent years, many companies remain committed to development programs for employees being groomed for leadership positions and to technical training that's deemed essential, says Ravin Jesuthasan, global head of talent management at Towers Watson in Chicago.

What's gone missing, he says, are the soft-skills courses for employees who aren't on the managerial fast track.

"You can see the return-on-investment from technical training and from programs designed to fill the leadership pipeline, but the ROI from development programs for individual contributors is less obvious -- and those folks have consistently been left behind," says Jesuthasan.

Failing to provide individual contributors with the chance to develop their leadership and interpersonal skills can shortchange the individual and the company he or she works for, especially in today's team-based corporate environment, he says.

"When we ask individual contributors to play a team-leadership role and they're not quite ready to take it on, the result can be a dysfunctional team," he says. 

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Fundamental changes in industries such as software design, manufacturing and healthcare have led to a need for individual contributors who can also be effective team leaders, says Jim Concelman, vice president for leadership development at Development Dimensions International in Pittsburgh.

"One of the most interesting things we're seeing in software development is the replacement of the 'waterfall' development method with the 'agile' development method, which is a completely different approach," he says.

The "waterfall" method is the traditional, top-down model in which developers are provided with steps to create software that meets certain specifications, says Concelman. The agile method is a much more fluid process in which team members collaborate closely with each other and with customers to create applications that meet the customers' ever-changing needs, he says.

"The agile method requires significantly more teamwork and collaboration than the waterfall method," says Concelman. "A lot of IT organizations say they badly want to transfer to the agile method, but what's holding them back is the lack of training among software programmers who've grown used to working independently."

Skills such as conflict management, providing effective feedback, and building and maintaining trust have also become much more important in healthcare and manufacturing settings, where employees who once may have worked alone are now expected to work as part of -- or even to lead - teams, says Concelman.

Companies that neglect to offer ICs the opportunity to beef up their skills in these areas may be inadvertently sending them a message, says Jesuthasan.

"Individual contributors have career aspirations, too, and if you're not investing in their development, they see that as a strong signal as to how they're valued within the organization," he says. 

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