Your senior leadership shouldn’t be individual contributors

Senior Leadership

I was poking around a Facebook thread, and some dude who was senior leadership at a recent job I had made an interesting comment. The picture in question on the thread was a candy jar, about 1/4 full. Apparently it was a “stress candy” jar, and so, being 3/4 depleted, the idea is that the team in question is really, super stressed. That’s a totally normal thing that can happen in an office, so I thought that made relative sense all things considered. You get down about 6-7 comments and the senior leadership guy is basically jumping in all like, “I could have used that today! I didn’t eat! Looked up from my tasks at 2:30pm and was like Whoa!”

Now of course, because this guy is senior leadership — i.e. the boss of a bunch of other people on this thread — his comment got about six likes instantly. “You’re such a dragon-slayer, boss!” Etc, etc. This stuff happens all the time. It’s not uncommon.

But … think about the comment he left (which, yes, is paraphrased above) for a second. How does it make any sense at all for senior leadership to be treating their day like that?

Senior leadership and the two-track idea

I’ve never understood this whole deal, so back when I worked for McKesson for about 12-13 weeks in summer ’13, I pitched this concept. It went absolutely nowhere, but here’s the idea.

  • You have a senior leadership career track. On this track, you will ultimately manage others and departments.
  • You have an individual contributor career track. On this track, you never manage others, but you do collaborate with others on projects, etc.
  • The trick is that you can earn the same salary levels on both tracks

Most companies are terrified of this idea for a number of reasons, notably that it might piss off conventional senior leadership — “You mean I gotta manage 15 schlubs, and Johnny’s making the same just working solo?!?!” — and for a whole host of other reasons around how we look at salary and compensation, which is funny as hell because no one really understands salary anyway, including often the people who set the bands.

Anyway, this idea bombed.

But here’s why I liked it: there are many, many, many people in the world who should never be a manager of others. Being a manager of others means you’ll have some control over their workflow — and, honestly, some control over how they feel about their lives at the end of a day/week. Some people should never have that responsibility. But oftentimes, people go get it — try to become senior leadership — because it’s the only way to make more money.

When you combine that with Peter Principle with people getting complacent in jobs, you explain this stat: 82 percent of managers end up being the wrong hire. That’s a massive failure rate — 8 in 10, or 4 in 5 — and yet, no one gives two shits so long as the revenue’s still there. How we treat the ‘human’ side of business and management and leadership is a complete and total joke that not even Seinfeld in his heyday could riff properly on. (Should I have used a Kevin Hart reference there?)

But aside from ass-clown target-chasers as managers, why else would two tracks make sense?

Senior leadership and priorities

This is my absolute No. 1 pet peeve about how most organizations are structured, and lest you think this is me going on a rant about senior leadership at different places I’ve worked — it’s not. This stuff about complete lack of priority is backed up by research.

Take the senior leadership example from above, i.e. the Facebook post. If that dude really didn’t even look up from his desk until 2:30pm, knowing him (a little bit) and knowing general notions of senior leadership, I’d assume you’re mostly talking about meetings, calls, and task work. All that stuff is shallow work. Some of the meetings/calls may have advanced a revenue agenda, of course — but predominantly it’s just Column A to Column B, checking boxes, logistical bullshit.


Now, this is necessary at many jobs — but why is senior leadership doing this stuff?

This is where most jobs collapse for me: there are typically two things a job needs to theoretically ‘align’ in terms of the right stuff getting done in a given day, week, month, or year.


  • Strategy (the big picture)
  • Execution (the day-to-day tasks)

The first bullet, strategy, should be the domain of senior leadership. In the crassest terms possible, they make the most money — so they should do that work. And if it tanks big-time over a strategic plan period, their asses should be on the line.

The second bullet, execution, should be the domain of rank-and-file up to middle managers. That’s the actual work, both shallow and deep, of how an org works day-to-day.

A bunch of consultants like to rush in and screech that “Everyone is a leader in successful orgs!” Yes, that’s nice. It’s also a utopia. Most people in an office have some degree of leadership potential, but hierarchy usually totally squashes that out of people within the first three weeks. “The top dogs know what’s best!”

But wait … the top dogs? The senior leadership? The same people doing task work from 9am-2:30pm without a break? They know what’s best?


There are a number of tremendously-fraught things here, so let’s run down a few quickly:

Senior leadership work is furthest away from the customer: Companies are set up so that rank-and-file workers interact more with customers/clients, and senior leadership works more with partners and potential perks. So all this task work? It’s probably not even that related to the people who buy the stuff that drives the revenue.

Senior leadership has a totally different set of priorities than even their direct reports: Usually their only metric of concern is growth or revenue. People that report directly to them are being told they have eighteen additional concerns — usually all stuff senior leadership is kicking down the ladder — but 17 of those can’t get attention from the boss because the boss needs to talk money, money, money.

Senior leadership can’t set strategy and get down in the weeds on its execution: That’s the same general principle as an editor pitching a story for a magazine then going and writing it himself, then editing it himself. It just can’t work that way. This is the real deal: senior leadership should be about setting the strategy and coaching people towards it, but because senior leadership also mostly fears incompetence (backed by research) and want to be seen as relevant (ditto), they often want to do both.

And therein we have the “Hitting targets until 2:30pm!” post from above. But there is a better way.

Your senior leadership shouldn’t be individual contributors

Strip the task work from ’em. That’s it. Out-source it, give ’em assistants, whatever. Strip the meetings and calls from ’em too, unless those are directly aligned with their metrics for the year. Their goal should be to set strategy, define how the strategy plays out, and then go around coaching, guiding, and re-contextualizing the work. That’s it.

Senior leadership can have a set of specific metrics, probably around money, and the goal is to hit those while also making those under you better — both your direct reports and theirs. Give a crap, for a second, about ‘talent strategy.’ Think about whether you might be disrupted and discuss ‘change management.’ Walk around and talk to people about the business, about pain points, etc.

See, at the senior leadership level, you’re already making the most scratch. (Check.) Because of how most people view and conceptualize hierarchy, you’ve already got the most respect. (Check.) You’re usually closest to the perks provided by your company’s partners and vendors, who want to woo you to get more business. (Check.) So you’re firing on all cylinders.

Instead of getting down in the dirt and line-editing Google Drive documents or blog headlines, why don’t you use your senior leadership perch to pay it forward a bit and help others grow and align with the overall strategy/vision?

I realize it’s a utopia at many places, but damn.

Your thoughts?

Ted Bauer


  1. Regarding “Your senior leadership shouldn’t be individual contributors” post of June 5, 2016, It’s awfully hard to take any person serious – much less their advise – when the post, presentation, white paper, or whatever it may be, is laced with unintelligible classless epithets, crude language and toilet talk. If your range of thought and vocabulary can only extend to the use of these words and phrases, why should we expect that you have given any further and serious consideration to your presentation?

    As it appears you are representative of their kind of communicator, please ask “The Context of Things” to delete me from any further communication effective immediately.

    • Huh? If you don’t like the language, simply navigate away from the page. There’s no need to post a comment like this oddly written in the third person or something.

    • I agree, however well thought out or researched this article was. It is hard to take serious when the “researcher” refers to senior leadership as “dude” or “ass clown.”

      • OK, so you’re throwing out the baby with the bath water. That’s certainly one approach. I assume you’re also chasing targets for your boss like a dude-level ass clown, am I right?

      • This obsession with ‘civility’ is actually proving his point. “Shit for show”

    • Brian, you write like a robot. I don’t like robots. See? Diction is subjective. Strike one.

      Also, in the context of your sentence, “seriously” would be more effective than “serious”. Strike two.

      “As it appears you are representative of their kind of communicator”—to whom are you referring? You don’t qualify “their kind”, you only hint that there exists some lower form of human Ted belongs to without explicitly saying so. Strike three.

  2. Hi Ted, having had over 30 years of business experience, what you’ve written is blatantly true. As a former editor, yes, a few words may keep others from posting the article (in reference to a former reader comment), but otherwise I very much appreciate your straightforwardness: you pull no punches.

    There are leaders I’ve worked for in the past who I sincerely wish would see this article and take it to heart. But, then again, they’re too busy with tasks to read their emails (other than those emails demanding their attention to put out fires that their personnel up to middle management should be handling).

    • I’m working on the curse word thing, but I’m glad you agree with the general approach and ideas. Most senior management I’ve worked for are clueless — and oftentimes it’s not that they’re bad or dumb or anything, it’s that they have too much kicked to them. Why are they asked to also be ICs?

  3. If senior leadership doesn’t know how things are done down, ‘down there in the weeds,’ how can he/she coach? Would a piece of strategizing be finding a way to remove barriers so the executors can get work done? Pushing sleeves up once in awhile could help the emporer put clothes back on and actually baking cakes for the people to eat may forestall a revolt.

    • I love the emperor clothes reference here. One of my co-workers at ESPN used to use that joke all the time re: management.

  4. When you sit down and attempt to digest “82 percent of managers end up being the wrong hire,” it’s hard not to mourn the unmeasurable loss in the process–so many hard working people have been mistreated, employees have been poorly managed, innovation has been discouraged, and talent has been lost. Ultimately, unlocking real potential for an organization is an anomaly with facts and figure as such.

  5. I love this article. The peter principle is real. Without a doubt, the smartest, most diligent, capable colleagues I have worked with have been individual contributors. Many “managers” are so busy chasing the next promotion that they fail to have any positive impact. Many of them got to where they are by stepping on individual contributors and generally being assholes.

    But completely agree that competent senior managers should be free to set strategy and drive execution. It only makes sense.

    Here’s why individual contributors are looked down on in corporations. It’s really because of fear; fear because they can’t be controlled. The ICs have valuable skills that are transferable between companies and industries. They aren’t motivated by titles, perks, and money. And so, they are immune from being able to be jerked around by “managers” dangling these things in front of them like a carrot on a stick. They can easily find another position. Managers also fear being exposed by them; ICs are smarter and know how to get the rubber to meet the road. “Managers” are actually helpless without them. So you have this crucial resource that is immune to your carrots and sticks, and he can expose your lack of real skills very easily.

    This is why the ICs are subtly snubbed and never invited to the executive washroom. Not that they want to be in that club anyway.

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