What’s Your Career Path — Individual Contributor vs. Manager?

Mary Despe
3 min readJul 8, 2022
Asian woman with dark hair and glasses, dressed in casual business attire, taking a look to the side, in a contemplative moment.
Photo credit: 123rf.com (user: ximagination)

Someone I met recently made an interesting comment.

Not only had she been surprised that I had been in the workforce for 20 years, but that I didn’t currently have a title indicating an obvious level of authority or power.

I chuckled.

Had it been earlier in my career — say, 10 years ago — I would have been offended. I would have allowed ‘imposter syndrome’ to seep in, feeling like I hadn’t accomplished much in my career nor added value to organizations in a meaningful way.

Though my professional journey has afforded me some pretty awesome opportunities including working internationally, speaking at conferences and running my own business during my tenure in the recruitment industry, I understood her point.

I had made a choice that many professionals face in their careers:

Stay an individual contributor or pursue the traditional path of management?

Making the decision to stay an individual contributor can be a difficult one. You may be worried that you are limiting your career growth or advancement opportunities.

This is especially true for those who feel unseen in their careers. Introverts, for example, might feel a bit panicked in their options to grow professionally. They might feel the only way to advance in responsibility and in salary is to pursue roles that might have them in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, front and center, leading teams and managing others.

But… it doesn’t always have to be that way.

There are many benefits to staying in an individual contributor role, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have a diminished professional future. Such benefits include:

  1. Becoming an expert. Being an individual contributor gives people the chance to build authority through deep knowledge and application. It allows you to become a practitioner skilled with particular expertise. Not only will it promote continued fluency and practice in your line of work, but such expertise opens the door to other opportunities to innovate, educate and influence. For example, it would make sense for individual contributors with extensive knowledge to weigh in on product…

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Mary Despe

Mary Despe is a Hawaii-based Career Coach. Golf, Dogs, Aloha… everyday. marydespe.com