Many times, I’ve been asked what the difference is between IC and people management positions are. Most companies do define upper management very differently, based on business needs. This makes it difficult to classify exactly. However, there are common patterns that you will see from most companies, once it has reached over 500 employees. This is because companies are too big for each department to just wing it without efficiency penalties. Let’s talk about what this means to you and your personal growth.
Junior individual contributor
Having a junior title doesn’t mean you’re not a highly valued professional. It does, however, mean that you’re in a period of your career where you have to prove to the company that you don’t need hand-holding for every project given to you. This usually means that that you are right for the job but lack domain expertise or that
(Senior) Individual contributor
Unless you’ve joined a startup, where at the time of hiring, they cared more about manpower than domain-expertise, you have been a part of the industry long enough to be sufficient in execution projects on your own. This is why they usually have a 3-5 year job experience requirement. You are still expected to give status reports to your direct manager, and periodically ask for assistance on things that lean more towards tribal knowledge than domain expertise.
A good manager will not micromanage you and let you figure out the next steps and resolve blockers unless you’ve explicitly asked for help. They have better things to do anyway and if you ask too often than you look like a junior. On the other hand, if you get stuck and ask too light, you also look like a junior, so be careful!
Principal Individual contributor
Usually, only companies that have thousands of employees will have titles like “principal”. This is usually more embellishment than anything else, highlighting the fact that the companies have senior contributors who have noteworthy accomplishments at the company, either by project or by year. This person will be guaranteed to know not just his domain but how everything else in the company connects to his domain. They are highly valued for their expertise and execution. It is also worth noting that some people don’t like to manage people, and thus would choose this route over group managers and up. Title wise, this might be the limit, but it does not limit one’s growth in compensation and respect at all.
Group Manager or Director
It took me a while to figure this out, but the key attribute of a Group Manager and Director is this:
#1 You have domain expertise.
You’re expected to lead other team members and the direction of impact-driven initiatives. At this stage, you are bombarded with issues and requests. It’s your job to know what is noise and what are actionable patterns. A great mentor told me once that it is up to me to recognize whether a team is asking you to build the next revolutionary people vessel or a faster horse.
#2 You have the right people skills.
You are expected to work with multiple departments within your company and at this stage, you have nobody but yourself to make it work. If you have an attitude problem or suck at communication, the issues become readily apparent and soon everybody will talk behind your back about being that guy. Strive to not be that guy.
#3 You are like a multithreaded computer
That is to say, you are capable of executing multiple projects. The key difference between a senior resource and one that is not is that you are expected to recognize and act on the bigger picture. The bigger picture involves many ongoing projects and you juggle them like a pro! This means with external teams, your direct reports, and the ability to manage up.
Side note: If your bigger picture does not have multiple projects in parallel, then I reckon whatever you’re building is lame. If you’re able to get ANY traction on it, somebody with deeper pockets will copy your initiatives in minutes.
Even Upperer Management
It’s our experience that once you’ve made it into the realm of directorship, the differences between a director and even higher management becomes quite muddled. You will see that everybody will have common traits of domain expertise. However, I believe soft skills become ever more important. If you’ve ever been to a conference with upper management, everybody is reeking charisma like it’s their perfume/cologne of choice. Half the time is spent on relationship building, the other half is actual work. Unless you’re the VP of the company that is yours, it will become VERY hard for you to hold on to your title without social skills.
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