Proven Practices for Individual Contributors
I got an email from a GM (General Manager) at Microsoft, who will be giving a presentation at Microsoft on “How To Be an Effective IC (Individual Contributor)” and he’s collecting best practices. Scott Hanselman shared his thoughts and I thought I would share mine. For this post, I attempted to boil down some of the best lessons I’ve learned for myself, that I mentor others, and that I see others put into practice.
Before diving in, I think it’s important to make two points. First, I’ve seen people completely change their game. It’s always the ones that focus on growth. They take action, they learn and respond. This adds up over time. While I know this pattern, it never ceases to amaze me how dramatic some of the changes can be. It’s like watching somebody go from the last pick of the litter to first choice, and that’s a big deal. Meanwhile, other people slide down. They get lazy, stop following their passions, and they lose their skills. Continuous growth is the key. Second, you can’t just be smart. As one of my mentors put it, Microsoft rewards “smart and gets results.” I’ve taken this to heart. What I lack in smarts, I make up for in results :) There are plenty of smart people with lots of capability. At the end of the day, they need to show results. Smart and gets results is the time-tested, mother approved formula for making an impact, and unleashing your best.
Top 10 Keys to Individual Contribution
While it’s tough for me to boil down to the bare minimum, I started by identifying the key patterns I see across successful individual contributors. I then tested against my own experience. Here are my results:
- Lesson 1. Focus on strengths, limit liabilities.
- Lesson 2. Scale yourself.
- Lesson 3. Know what’s valued.
- Lesson 4. Follow the growth.
- Lesson 5. Model the best.
- Lesson 6. Balance the hot spots.
- Lesson 7. Manage your plate.
- Lesson 8. Stay in the game.
- Lesson 9. Drive or be driven.
- Lesson 10. You’re the sum of your network.
Keys to Individual Contribution Explained
Here is my elaboration of each of the lessons:
- Lesson 1. Focus on strengths, limit liabilities. This is the opposite of focusing on your weaknesses. Instead, find a way to use your super power at work. This is your staying power. It will be a differentiator for you. It’s also a way to stay passionate and keep your energy strong. You don’t have to turn your weaknesses into strengths, but limit your liabilities. My strength at work is getting results. On the technical side, it’s application architecture with a focus on quality attributes (security and performance.)
- Lesson 2. Scale yourself. Have a system for results. I use Monday Vision, Daily Outcomes, and Friday Reflection as a weekly results pattern. I also build a lot of reusable assets, including templates and checklists for things I have to do time and again (I think of it as productizing myself). I also hack away at the unessential, Bruce Lee style, and I push my bottleneck around (part of unleashing your best results, is eliminating your worst bottlenecks, such as perfectionism or procrastination or analysis paralysis.) See Rituals for Results and How To Use Timeboxing for Getting Results.
- Lesson 3. Know what’s valued. Value is in the eye of the beholder. You might be doing all the right things, according to you … but maybe not to the business or the people that are funding you. A simple sanity check goes a long way. Ask your manager what’s on their radar. Know what the business objectives are. Connecting the dots goes a long way for maximizing the results of the time you’re spending, and always be ready to correct course. The difference between off-track and on-course makes all the difference in the world. Nothings worse than climbing the ladder to find it’s up against the wrong wall.
- Lesson 4. Follow the growth. Take on projects that grow your skills. Life’s not static. The year goes by quick. Next year, you can have another win under your belt with some new skills, or you can be another year older, and rusty. This also applies to following the growth in your industry. For example, if I want to follow the growth in software, I look to mobile or Cloud or green … etc. Always assume there’s more time ahead of you than behind you.
- Lesson 5. Model the best. Learn the best, from the best. Find the people with results and use them as mentors. You can use an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) technique to elicit a strategy and model excellence. Also remember that mentors are the short cuts.
- Lesson 6. Balance the Hot Spots. Your career is one part of your life. While it’s an important part, there’s a bigger picture. For me, I think in terms of life hot spots: mind, body, emotions, career, financial, relationships, and fun. I use it as my heat map and I balance across my portfolio. See Life Hot Spots.
- Lesson 7. Manage your plate. When you go to the buffet, you can pile your plate until it over-floweth, or you can carry a lighter load and make multiple trips. My Mom always told me take two trips and eventually I learned she was right. You’ll be faster, lighter weight, more energy, and you’ll accomplish more in the long run. Don’t get bogged down. Push back, focus on the vital few, clear your plate fast, and take on more. This teaches about your capacity. It also follows a simple principle that you should reduce open work for more effective results. Task switching kills your productivity. Also, when you are constantly over-loaded, you can’t respond to change, and you’ll be less friendly with people, for fear that everybody you see will either knock your plate over or will have just a little more something to add. Know your capacity, keep a buffer, and focus on completing work quickly. This builds momentum and you can snowball your success.
- Lesson 8. Stay in the game. Don’t become a has been who never was. If you feel like you’re out of the game, you probably are. It’s way to easy to fall into the trap of delegating or outsourcing the wrong things, where over time, instead of improving you’ve declined. This goes back to follow the growth. This is also where knowing your role is important. Are you the coach or the quarterback? If you’re the coach, then be a great one. If you’re the quarterback, make sure you’re learning from every play.
- Lesson 9. Drive or be driven. The mindset for this is “own it.” When you own the problem, you drive it. It’s the difference between being the driver or a casual passenger. Your awareness goes up and so does your commitment level. When you drive things, you’ll find that you become more proactive and less reactive. This is self-starter at its finest. This means driving your results, driving your career, and making things happen. People like to help people who make things happen. If they have to light a fire under you just to get you started every time, people will find ways not to carry the dead weight.
- Lesson 10. You’re the sum of your network. You are who you hang with. As one of my friends put relayed to me, “you’re the average of the 10 people you spend time with.” It’s true. You end up modeling your friends. I think of this as your inner circle. It’s your immediate sphere of people who make you better or bring you down. Then there’s your extended network. This is where it gets fun. Your network is a set of capabilities. It helps you get things done. There are 3 keys here. First, build your network before you need it. Second, build a useful network. Third, bring extreme value to the table. At work, I pair up, team up, and trade my skills with others to get things done.
There is a lot more I could say on this topic. In fact, I’m actively summarizing my results system in a guide. I will add that you can think of your improvement as an individual contributor with a simple frame: motivation, skills, and feedback. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You can find the skills and skills do make the difference. Feedback is also your friend. Always fail forward and find the lessons. The other thing I’ll add is to chop the distractions. There are so many ways to get distracted. To stay on track, focus on your outcomes and results. Just a simple check can help you know whether you’re moving towards or away from your goals. It’s that simple daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly check that will help you move mountains.
Oh yeah, one other lesson that is just too important not to put out there … lead by example! Actions speak louder than words.
Photo by thenails.