Re-finding Your Individual Contributor Self

The Shift Back from Management

Moving from management back into the role of an individual contributor—especially if you go out as a freelancer or consultant—can be as overwhelming and confusing as moving into leadership from an individual contributor role. Some of the reasons are similar but some are very different.

When I left my management job and entered consulting, I suddenly felt like a fish out of water. I thought that I had no idea how to do the work anymore—the tools had changed, the expectations were different and I was on my own in a way that I hadn’t been in more than a decade.

I knew what the work needed to look like at the end. I knew how to give advice and art direct, but I had forgotten the skills for making—actually I had forgotten the skills for getting started on a new project too. I also wasn’t sure how to collaborate with other designers anymore—that give and take in brainstorming and sharing files back and forth as you are making and refining. Presenting work-in-progress to clients also was a skill I had lost along the way of sitting in meetings and protecting my teams from irrelevant bureaucracy within the large organization.

Additionally, once I started consulting, not every job was big enough for me to have a support team, which meant I had to do all the design work myself. My very first project I knew what should be done and what I wanted for the end result in terms of deliverables and metrics for my client but I didn’t have the faintest clue how to start. I felt like I had lost my chops and that I had been bypassed by all the younger designers. I was overwhelmed with major imposter syndrome.

I eventually muddled may way through that project successfully and now nine years later I am equally at home doing hands-on design work as well as leading a team and even advising team members from other design firms that we sometimes collaborate with on big projects. I am happy to say that I can jump right into a problem, whiteboard with a team and then go make the things that need making so we can continue to have productive conversations and solve the big hairy problems. No more paralysis, no more fear, and no more worrying about what tool the cool kids are using because I am master of some, good enough with others and know when to pass. I have found a nice equilibrium between hands-on and managing from project to project.

So what are the lessons I learned from this experience?

Never stop designing

If you are a manager, make sure you always have your hands in designing something. This is where personal projects come in handy. Use these to learn any new tools and to stay nimble.

Run brainstorm sessions

This is a no brainer (pun intended). But is easier said than done. In my last management position I was up a couple of levels from the day to day work. Therefore I was in a lot of planning and administrative meetings and wasn’t directly involved in the product design sessions. That’s the work my managers led. This was one of my biggest mistakes in terms of letting that go out of fear of stepping on my manager’s toes. I recommend that you work closely with your managers and make sure you are invited to key brainstorm sessions, that you participate and lead them when it makes sense. Have special sessions with your management team to spread the ideas and cross-pollinate throughout your organization. This will keep you involved across teams, and again, keep you nimble.

Own something outright

Be responsible for something beyond the team itself. Designing a team is hard work and takes care and feeding but that work is undervalued in many organizations. Make sure you are presenting design work. When I became a manager, I had to work hard to remember to delegate. Then I delegated everything, moved up the ladder and suddenly I wasn’t doing the work anymore. I wasn’t presenting the work either and people forgot I was a designer or they had never actually seen me in that role. 

In the large organization, especially when there are 360 reviews up and down the chain and sideways throughout the division, it is important that people know your strengths and value to the organization. If you end up just doing administrative work, this will bite you later, even if that administrative work is important and clears the way for your teams to do great work. 

Much of my time in my last in-house role was spent building an organization and hiring and then doing the protection game for those teams. Although my first year was spent doing hands-on design and some product management work, by the time my team grew and we were deep into product and platforms, I wasn’t doing that kind of work anymore so there were whole levels within the organization who had never seen me in that previous role. I wasn’t viewed as a designer and I wasn’t valued for my design expertise and experience. I was also too naive and unskilled in managing up to know how to do the self-promotion I needed to make sure people understood the value I brought to the company.

Keep up with the technology

Make sure you stay up to date with the software. Sounds extraneous, especially when you get to the point of doing strategy and higher level work. When I began consulting, I was pretty good with some software but I’ve had to play catch-up with the exploding array of tools for prototyping and as clients have rolled out specific software for their internal teams, I’ve had to learn those tools as well so we can share files. If you keep up while you are managing, then there is smaller gap if you shift roles.

Don’t forget to find your own mentors

Over my career, across all the various roles I have had, I can say without a doubt that solving problems for customers is the thing that keeps me going, along with mentoring and growing younger designers. As a manager and leader within a multi-level organization, I worked hard to mentor my managers and many of the individual designers across my teams. 

I forgot about me though in the process and never really had a mentor inside the corporation (at least at my last job). I suffer from being an introvert and have typical female behavior where I wait for someone to recognize my strengths and contributions rather than exhibiting the toot-your-own-horn or the ask-for-guidance-to-level-up behavior we see so often with men. So I floundered a bit. I tried to be the mentor I wished I had but did a lousy job for myself and my long-term career at that corporation. 

In hindsight, I would have done things differently. After nine years consulting, I am not afraid of anyone anymore when it comes to the job and asserting myself and the value of what I bring to the table. The CEOs that I work with don’t always know what they are doing any more than I do but we all figure it out quickly together. They have different strengths than me and that’s something I have tapped into where it matters for mentorship. Several startup founders I’ve worked with have been great coaches and mentors to me over the years. Mentors can be found in the most unlikely places if you look hard enough and remember that one person isn’t necessarily going to be everything you need to grow and get ahead. They say it takes a village to raise a child. It can take a small village to grow professionally—tap into your network and learn from everyone.

In conclusion

Hopefully these lessons that I have learned the hard way will help you in your professional career and help make your transitions between management and individual contributor smooth regardless of which way you are moving. 

(See So You Think You Want to be a Manager for the other direction).

current: experience matters design :: senior level interaction design and systems strategy consulting former partner, tangible user experience; Yahoo! founder of the public and internal Yahoo! pattern library. design director of ued teams responsible for designing solutions across key yahoo! platforms: social media, personalization, membership and vertical search.