Develop the Leaders You’ve Been Overlooking

brainsSay the word leader and most people immediately think of those with business cards that says “manager,” “director,” or other such lofty title. That is, the people who hold positions of stature within a company’s hierarchy, to whom several individuals report, and whose influence comes in great measure from the positions they hold.

But anyone who has worked in organizations knows that there are also people without managerial titles, and who have no direct reports, and yet wield great influence and make critical contributions to the firm. These are the highly professional individual contributors. They may be petroleum engineers in an oil company, software engineers in a technology organization, industrial designers in a toy company, or pilots in an airline. In many cases they have deliberately chosen not to pursue a managerial career. Perhaps they prefer technical work. Or perhaps they want to avoid the budgeting, reporting, and steady round of meetings that management jobs entail.

In some organizations (like, say, the National Football League), their importance is obvious, and rewarded. In the early 1980s, Jack Zenger heard Michael Eisner acknowledge another such group when Eisner was president of Disney. He talked of the importance of taking care of the people in any organization who made unique, pivotal contributions, and who were easy to overlook. “In Disney,” he said, “these people are our animators.” They conceived the endearing cartoon characters and brought them to life through their craft. Even today, when this work is done with computer-generated graphics rather than laborious drawings, that function remains vital to the organization.

We submit that every organization has such people. It may be someone in product development who without any direct reports, plays an essential role in the selection and development of new products. It may be a key salesperson, who because of some unique connection with customers exerts a powerful influence on the organization’s go to market strategy.

In our opinion, these individuals meet the important criteria of true leaders, but they often get overlooked for any kind of leadership development because they don’t manage or supervise anyone and aren’t thought to need training in management basics like budgeting. Yes, they may be included in the mandatory compliance programs such as safety or data security, but those programs don’t do much to advance their leadership acumen or behavior.

We think there’s a huge opportunity to provide this group with much of the same development experiences their managerial colleagues receive. For several years, we have conducted development sessions for more than 1,000 such professional, individual contributors. Their response to, and the outcomes from, these development sessions have been very similar to comparable sessions we’ve conducted with managers. In particular, we’ve found that they greatly appreciate receiving the same kind of feedback from others that developing leaders receive in 360 evaluations by their peers, bosses, and direct reports.

While they’re not rated by a group called direct reports (since they don’t have any), they can receive, and benefit from, feedback from peers, from their boss, and from colleagues in different parts of the firm. Some invite feedback from customers and suppliers. (Perhaps we should call their feedback reports “270s.”)

We can see a host of reasons for investing in this group.

First, investing in their leadership development will make these valuable people feel highly valued, signaling that the organization respects their contribution enough to provide for their continuing development.

Second, talented individuals are more inclined to stay with organizations when they feel they are progressing. In most large organizations, a similar percentage of this group is eligible for retirement in the next five years as their management colleagues (that is, more than a half), and their departure would be a huge loss for the organization.

Third, they will enjoy increased success. These professional individual contributors succeed in part because of their professional expertise, but just as much because of their ability to work well with others, and communicate effectively with other departments and levels of the organizations. Leadership development efforts can make them better team players, improve their communication skills, and teach them to be better coaches, skills that are particularly important for people who, given their lack of formal organizational power, must accomplish nearly everything they do through informal influence.

Fourth, some of them could well develop into excellent managers, and they could begin such a transition without a shift in their formal position. There are obvious advantages to identifying management potential before promoting some other valuable contributor who will turn out to be unsuited or unhappy in that role. What’s more, as they learn to be more effective interpersonally and become more attuned to the people issues, many with management potential may become increasingly open to managerial roles. Even those who don’t will be more apt to adopt some of the perspectives and behaviors of managers—such as being concerned about developing others and not always taking the short-term, expedient path of “Oh, here, let me do that.”

Individual contributors are a huge assets for every organization. Yet they typically fail to show up on anyone’s radar screen for development. We believe organizations are missing a great opportunity to retain these key people, to help them be even more influential, and to prepare a portion of them for key managerial positions in the firm. How could these forgotten resources be benefiting your own organization within the seasons to come?

Jack Zenger is the CEO of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a co-author of the October 2011 HBR article Making Yourself Indispensable. Connect with Jack at

Joseph Folkman is the president of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a co-author of the October 2011 HBR article “Making Yourself Indispensable. Connect with Joe at


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