Career Advice: Is an Individual Contributor or Managerial Role Better?

Career Advice: Is an Individual Contributor or Managerial Role Better?

Career Advice: Is an Individual Contributor or Managerial Role Better?

Alex (not his real name), a connection of our executive search consultant, stood out as an individual contributor within his firm. With his strong technical proficiency, rich experience in both the Singapore and APAC markets, and contribution towards the success of several critical projects, he was quickly promoted to a managerial role. While Alex didn’t envision himself in management, the conventional belief that leadership is the default step for career progression convinced him to accept the role.

However, it didn’t take long for Alex to feel out of his element. The shift from hands-on work, which he was passionate about, to a schedule dominated by meetings and personnel management led to a significant dip in his motivation. This predicament soon made him contemplate whether to revert to being an individual contributor versus persisting in his path.

His dilemma reflects a hard truth: management work isn’t for everyone. Fortunately, unlike conventional beliefs, being a manager is also not the only way to advance in one’s career. If you are hesitating between both career paths, understanding their differences can guide you towards a decision that better aligns with your strengths and aspirations.


What is an Individual Contributor?

As the name implies, individual contributors are professionals who focus on their specialisations without taking on management duties. Like the general employee, individual contributors’ primary goals are to master new skills and enhance their existing abilities to solve business problems. However, they operate at a more advanced level, with companies relying on them as subject-matter experts to advise on complex projects.


Differences Between Individual Contributors vs Manager

In contrast, managers primarily guide others, strategise, and define the company direction rather than hone their technical expertise. What this distinction means is that the skills required to excel as an individual contributor versus a manager would differ.


1. Tactical vs Technical Skills

Take an HR business partner (HRBP) versus an HR director as  an example. An HRBP’s role is typically more strategic and consultative, involving tasks like using their specialised knowledge in strategic planning and coaching department heads. In other words, these individual contributors thrive on their technical expertise. Meanwhile, the work of an HR director involves a full suite of HR functions, from setting policy direction to budgeting, and managing employee benefits, compliance, teams and operations, among others.

As such, managers would benefit from having the tactical ability to see and manage the bigger picture. In fact, this is reported as one of the top strengths of the modern manager in a study by SHL. That said, being a manager doesn’t imply a complete deviation from one’s specialisation, as leaders still require a basic understanding of their field to lead and make informed decisions.

Advice: If being involved in problem-solving and having a deeper sense of connection with technical work resonates with you, you might thrive as an individual contributor. Conversely, if you’re energised by setting the strategic direction and driving change on a macro level, a career as a manager would be more satisfying.


2. Code-Switching vs Focused Work Style

Comparing the typical workday for an individual contributor versus a manager, we often find individual contributors dedicating long blocks of uninterrupted time to completing technical tasks. Meanwhile, a manager’s schedule would typically be packed with meetings with diverse stakeholders. 

In the latter’s case, what this routine implies is the constant need to adapt quickly to changing contexts. As such, code-switching would be an essential skill that enables aspiring leaders to perform well in their roles. The reverse can be said for those considering the individual contributor path. Given the need to dig deep into the technicalities, being highly focused, analytical, attentive to details, and strong in synthesising different information to form an implementable solution is key.

Advice: When contemplating your career path, consider not only your work style but also your tolerance for change and desire for autonomy. Psychologically, frequent changes can be stressful to manage. Additionally, unlike individual contributors, a manager’s performance is often evaluated based on external factors, such as their team’s performance. While these leaders can push their teams towards their desired goals, the outcomes still lie in the hands of others, affording managers less direct control versus what individual contributors enjoy.

This also extends to certain aspects of work flexibility. Given their focus on people-oriented tasks, managers may have less flexibility over their work schedules as they may need to be readily available to make critical decisions or provide direction. If maintaining control over these aspects of your work life is important, you might find the individual contributor route more appealing.


The Common Ground: Leadership, Communication & People Skills

skills of a manager versus an individual contributor

That said, there are still some similarities between the roles of an individual contributor and a manager. Regardless of your chosen path, it is likely that you’ll encounter situations requiring you to take the lead. While the scope and nature of the leadership would differ, both generally involve management and people skills


1. People Skills

As a manager, the bulk of one’s work often involves conflict resolution, bridging divides, managing expectations, aligning stakeholders, and fostering employee growth. Communication and people skills are essential to accomplishing these, as these skills allow these leaders to handle delicate situations well and earn the trust and cooperation of others to move projects along smoothly. 

Though not directly accountable for others, individual contributors will similarly require these skills when providing technical mentorship. With good emotional intelligence, individual contributors will be better equipped to communicate their expertise effectively while respecting other parties’ input to facilitate harmonious teamwork.


2. Leadership Skills

Another similarity is the need for leadership skills. While this requirement is obvious for managers, one may be surprised to hear that the same is required of individual contributors. Where this comes into play for the latter is when they drive projects as the subject matter expert. The slight difference is that a manager’s leadership skills may be applied more for people-related matters, whereas individual contributors play the role of a technical manager.


Practical Considerations: What Do I Really Want Out of my Career?

Besides understanding the responsibilities and requirements of both career paths, we also suggest factoring in what motivates you at work. In a recent LinkedIn poll we conducted about work motivations, the results revealed meaningful work as the primary motivator for professionals.

In this regard, managerial and individual contributor career paths can both involve meaningful work, albeit on a micro versus macro level. As such, when determining which route better suits your aspirations, an advice is to also consider how important external recognition is in your definition of purposeful work.

Given that individual contributors typically operate behind the scenes, visibility and recognition for their efforts tend to be lower within the organisation than that of managers. If external acknowledgement significantly contributes to your evaluation of meaningful work, serving as a manager might offer greater satisfaction.

That said, heavy is the head that bears the crown, and this holds true for managers, who typically have a greater workload because of their expanded scope of responsibilities. Findings reported in the “State of the Manager” echo this sentiment, revealing that only 43% of managers felt they could complete all their tasks during work hours, compared to 68% of individual contributors

Despite this, managers generally enjoy higher salaries and benefit from a clearer understanding of pay and promotion decisions, which aids in their career progression planning. This makes the managerial path ideal if financial benefits and a defined advancement trajectory are important to you. It’s worth noting, though, that there are exceptions. For instance, there are some roles identified by our finance recruitment consultants where individual contributors can potentially outearn managers.


Maximise Your Potential with JC

Ultimately, the journey to career success is non-linear. Both individual contributors and managers play essential roles within an organisation, and moving into management shouldn’t be seen as an obligatory next step. Rather, stay true to your values and pursue a path that best leverages your strengths. By trudging forth with the right intent and expectations, you’ll likely find yourself in a fulfilling career.

Interested in furthering the conversation and gaining more insights into available opportunities? Reach out to us for a chat today. At JC Consulting, we have executive search firms in Singapore and China, each with teams specialised in different industries, including HR recruitment, legal recruitment and life sciences recruitment. Regardless of your area of practice, you can be confident that you’re getting insights from specialists who understand your field of work and market.



In summary, whether to pursue a career as an individual contributor or a manager is a deeply personal one, requiring honest self-reflection on one’s strengths and preferred work style. Individual contributors can focus on deepening their technical expertise without the pressures of team accountability. However, this path demands a commitment to continuous learning and the ability to adapt quickly to the constantly evolving industry. Transitions between organisations may also be required to seek new learning opportunities.

In contrast, managers have the advantage of directing strategic decisions. However, this comes with a higher degree of pressure and accountability, alongside the need for continual development in management skills to handle diverse teams and projects. Regardless of the path you’re drawn to, both offer unique opportunities for growth and achievement. Remember, success is non-linear, and staying true to yourself will guide you towards a rewarding career.