Proven Practices for Individual Contributors


I got an email from a General Manager at Microsoft, who will be giving a presentation at Microsoft.

The presentation is on “How To Be an Effective IC (Individual Contributor)” and he’s collecting proven practices from people he knows that get great results.

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.

Smart and Gets Results

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.

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:

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


  1. I love this post JD! This is going to become required reading for my team :).

    Here are few a key lessons I’ve written down over the years that follow in the same vein:
    – Know your values, be consistent
    – Know your strengths and play to them
    – Know your weaknesses, don’t let them be liabilities, pick partners who can cover your gaps
    – Understand your center and know what it feels like when you are knocked off balance
    – Don’t take it personally, keep ego out of your decisions and reactions
    – Ask yourself, are you set up for success? If not, what needs to change? Change it!
    – Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
    – Beware of experts. Use your own brain, don’t delegate your critical thinking to others.
    – Don’t become a bottleneck on your team. Easy for managers to fall into this trap.
    – Before you delegate anything, understand how you would personally get it done.
    – Take time to blaze new trails, let others follow in your discoveries
    – Take risks, don’t be afraid to fail
    – When you fail, fail fast so you can learn quickly and move on. Don’t drag it out.
    – Give and get feedback in real-time. Just like dogs, people need the feedback immediately to make the connection
    – Understand how others see you. If its not how you want to be perceived, figure out how to fix it.
    – Understand your value. What do you bring to the table?
    – If something smells fishy, dig deep until you find what’s making the smell.
    – Understand your long-term goals. What are you working towards?
    – Set yourself up for flexibility. Your situation is guaranteed to change, make it easy for yourself to adapt.

  2. I am an IC. This one resonates with me a lot.
    My favorite here are: “Stay in the game” and “Drive or be driven.”

    “Stay in the game” is a very good barometer to tell me whether i am on track or not. Once I know what what game they play i strive to drive my part. The hardest part is figuring out the rules of the game and the players, the real ones

    Loved Jason’s “Do not take it personally” and especially “Beware of experts”.

  3. Interesting framework. I’ve seen folks flounder in the “know what’s valued” category. Sometimes it shows up as simply frustration with ‘management’ or worse can turn into an ‘I’m going to show them the way it should be’ approach. Understanding why you’re knocking your head up against a wall is critical to breaking through that wall (or as you say, figuring out which wall your on). A great danger signal is if you are sitting i your cubical thinking everyone else is simply stupid for not seeing things your way. May be true, but more than likely it means you’ve missed some communication clues.

  4. All just totally on the money here!

    Am excited about the Monday Vision for this coming week for me. I’ve been with my young daughter about 24/7 for the past 2 weeks but she’ll be attending a camp away from me this coming week, for 6 horus a day so this Monday’s my day to drive myself to where I want to go, to grow by making a list of 10 things to do first, and focus on my strenths as I make my actions speak louder than my words.

    I’ll keep you posted about my progress on my blog, of course! Look for it in my “A.K.” category in the next week or two.

  5. JD, your posts invariably add value, but this one adds a LOT of value! Really great job you did here. It will take me ages to read and implement each of the ten points. Adding individual value is really the most that many of us can do, and if each of us does that, then the cumulative impact is more than its sum.

  6. Hey JD,

    The one thing that I have noticed among those who are really successful at what they do is that they embody their work. I don’t mean that all they do is work but rather their area of expertise is a part of their being and they can talk about it anywhere and anytime. They know their subject so well that they do not need notes or charts or whatever. Actually, anyone who makes their job look easy, really has worked really hard to make it look like that.

    Yesterday I was in NYC for the day and walked by the Trump Tower which made me start thinking about Donald Trump. I have a lot of admiration for the guy and have read many of his books. The man is very smart and very passionate. In one book, he said know your subject and know all the details and I apply that to my passions which has made a huge difference.

  7. Love these thoughts. We have to have a plan to manage our careers otherwise we end up too scattered.

    I’ve been working on number 7 for awhile. I love the ideas behind the project. I get a little carried away and a lot less gets accomplished. What I’ve been doing is letting my ADD take me to another project, but as soon as the idea is down then I go back to the original project. I use a timer to make this happen (when I can remember) to make sure that I don’t get too carried away. I’ve been more focused and a lot more has been accomplished in the last few months.

  8. This is excellent – I think each lesson could fill an entire chapter (this reads much like the introduction to a book). I like posts that cover a wide range range of topics. This got me thinking in some new directions.

  9. @ Jason

    Thank you! Beautiful set of additions and they reenforce the themes of paving a path forward, and continuous growth. I especially like the question “are you setup for success?” It’s a nice, cutting question.

    @ Alik

    That’s a good point on knowing the rules. It’s easy to have crossed-expectations if you have one set of rules, but everybody is playing by another. Once you know the rules, it’s easier to match expectations or re-negotiate success.

    Beware of experts is a beautiful reminder that at the end of the day, you have to think for yourself and your accountable for your choices.

    @ Fred

    Beautiful articulation of an important point. It’s one thing to have a different sense of value, but you’re right, you have to first start with what are you missing. It might be as simple as the wrapper, or not connecting the dots to values.

    @ Positively Present

    Thank you! The sum is definitely more than the parts in this case, but each lesson can stand on its own as a way for improving your personal results.

    @ Jannie

    Thank you! The Rule of 3 is an important part of Monday Vision. Simply defining your top 3 results for the week can go a long way.

    @ Daphne

    Thank you! You’re right, the sum of all of us, is more than just one of us. The key to our individual results really is our own motivation and skills, especially influence (it amplifies our impact.)

    @ Nadia

    Very well put. I’ve noticed that too. There is a high correlation of success and those who embody their work. One of my great mentors early on taught me to “own” problems.

    The Donald is actually a results machine. I have one of his books and I was surprised by how much precision he had as well as rigor.

    @ Karl

    Thank you. Scattering definitely happens and it does seem like a key to improving effectiveness is improving focus and having themes.

    One of the best approaches I’ve found for nailing a project is reducing the timebox. I’ve found that spreading things over time can

    @ Melissa

    Thank you. You’re right – each of these lessons could easily fill a chapter. I’ve been trying to find an intermediate step between a full guide, and a post. I think a simple way might be to produce more free e-Books. I can always do full guides down the line, but this will help me flow more value.

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