The individual contributor.
Those are, essentially, the three roles you have available to you in the world of marketing and communications. And, over the last 25+ years, I’ve played in all three. So I thought I’d share my perspectives in the hopes that it might help you as you make decisions about your career path down the road.
Like most of us, I started with several “specialist” roles early in my career. When I was in my 20s, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. So, my theory was to try a bunch of things and see what stuck. I served in these specialist-type roles for 10+ years. I worked for a shopping center developer. An agency. A manufacturing firm. A non-profit. Almost always, I was part of a small team and was either the only specialist or one of two.
This is obviously a “doer” role. You’re largely a tactician. You do a ton of writing. Some research. Some reporting. Some shuffling of papers. It’s a ton of tactical day-to-day work that can get monotonous quickly. But, when you’re starting out, this is what you need. You need reps. You need practice. And these specialist roles give it to you. Now, this is also a role you might find yourself in as you age as well. I know all sorts of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who hold these roles and love them. They like the doing. Or, they don’t want the pressure (and lifestyle) of being the manager or leader. They’re find clocking in, doing their job, and going home. There’s something to be said for that–you don’t always have to climb.
I found myself in these roles for 10 years for a couple reasons. 1) I was always on a small team and my manager wasn’t going anywhere. Translation: There was no opportunity for growth. 2) I wasn’t a great employee. I found the specialist positions extremely de-motivating. In addition to the spartan growth opportunities, I found the work to be extremely monotonous, as I mentioned before. I found myself “mastering” the work quickly and getting bored just as fast. So, the roles were interesting for a while, but quickly grew old.
The “manager” role is where many people spend the lion’s share of their professional lives. These are jobs where you’re managing a team of people and a budget. The titles range from manager to VP (or, CCO/CMO at the very top). Most of these jobs involve less doing and more influencing. In many cases, you’re in meetings most of the day. The job is much more about your soft skills. Your political skills (which is why I sucked at these jobs). I was in the manager role only a couple times in my early career–and both times I didn’t love it. The politics side, for sure, was not fun. And like I said, I sucked at it. But more than that, I wasn’t great at the people side either. And, I missed the doing. So, the writing was kinda on the wall for me.
Now, the manager roles obviously do pay better. Much better in many cases. But, that money comes at a cost. Many of my friends and colleagues in these manager-type roles are very, very busy. In fact, they’re so busy, some of them have become part of the Great Resignation. At the very least, many of them will be looking for other positions in 2022 because they’re so frustrated with their current role. Now, some of that has to do with the work, the culture and the company. But some of that has to do with the role itself, too. It doesn’t lend itself well to “job satisfaction” and work-life balance. How could it when you’re not set up for success? Think about it–these folks are stuck in meeting almost all day yet they’re somehow expected to manage a team of people, actually do a few things and drive results. The people part alone is next to impossible when you can’t meet, manage and talk to them more than 15 minutes a week. And, they typically struggle with work-life balance. Keep in mind, you enter these manager roles a time in your life when many are starting families. So, you’re super-busy at work AND super-busy at home. Not a great recipe for “balance.”
For me, it became increasingly clear this wasn’t a good option for me. I wanted to be around for my kids. I couldn’t play politics. And, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to manage a team of people.
Which led me to the individual contributor role. The best possible role for me. Now, I took this and made it my own as a solo consultant. But, these roles exist in corporate America and in agencies, too. It’s not a role for everyone. For starters, it doesn’t come with the fame and titles those in “manager” roles receive. You’re not looked upon the same way. So, ego takes a hit. They typically also don’t pay nearly as well. These roles cap out at a certain level. You’re just not going to make as much as the manager-types (with the notable exception of the solo consultant where I would argue you can make a whole lot more–I’m living proof). But, these individual contributor roles do have their perks.
For starters, there’s usually much more freedom. You’re not stuck in meetings all day. You’re not responsible for a big team. You’re on your own. Some people love that–some don’t. But, I think it’s a big benefit of this role. Second, there’s not nearly as much pressure. Translation: You have your work-life balance (for the most part). Third: In many ways you become a subject matter expert. Whether that’s in digital marketing, crisis or internal comms, the individual contributor is usually an expert in his/her field. That offsets #1 above a bit and fills the “personal fulfillment” bucket.
In the end, after 13+ years in the work-world, I saw this as my best path forward. And for me, it took the form of this solo consultancy. It’s meant all the freedom I want to try new things and experiment–something I’ve grown to LOVE. It’s meant more work-life balance (although I still have yet to take a vacation in 12+ years where I don’t bring my laptop). And, it’s mean financial security. I’ve made more money doing this the last 12+ years than I could possibly dream of.
However, it’s also meant a small opportunity cost. At parties or gatherings when people ask me what I do and I respond with “solo consultant” I’m pretty sure most folks believe I’m unemployed. So, pretty big ego hit–I’ve seen that first-hand many, many times. I’ve also watched friends become VPs and even CCOs over the last few years. Now, that probably wouldn’t have been me for the reasons I mentioned above, but you still wonder, right?
But realistically, I’ve never regretted my decision. I love the individual contributor role and I can’t imagine a better fit for me and my personality. The key is really to figure out what role suits your personality and life stage best. And, it might be different in your 30s than it will be in your 50s. You might be a great manager in your 30s, but choose to be a specialist in your 50s!
I guess my point in all this is to spend some time thinking through these three roles and what you’re best suited for at different life stages. Because it can and will change over time.