Best job fit: manager or individual contributor?
Career development (Methods)
Leadership styles (Methods)
Managers (Management)
Tiffan, Bill
Pub Date:
Name: Physician Executive Publisher: American College of Physician Executives Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Health care industry Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 American College of Physician Executives ISSN: 0898-2759
Date: Nov-Dec, 2009 Source Volume: 35 Source Issue: 6
Event Code: 200 Management dynamics Computer Subject: Company business management
Product Code: 9918560 Career Planning
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:
We've all seen it before. A management position becomes available and an individual contributor is tapped to fill this important position even though they may have minimal or no previous management experience. This sometimes makes sense because the individual is talented and therefore should win the respect of his or her new direct reports. Shouldn't a person who performs at the highest level be able to guide others to reach that same level of productivity? Yes and no.


The traditional definition of a manager is someone who gets things done through and with other people. His or her work involves directing, guiding, advising people and planning and overseeing work to be done by others. Managers are accountable for what their people do. The manager's real job is managing others to achieve their goals. The manager's success is directly tied to theirs.

An individual contributor, on the other hand, is someone who operates as a team member or independently. A lab technician is an individual contributor and has responsibility for specific procedures and results as agreed upon with his or her manager, usually the head of the lab. The individual contributor's success is attributable primarily to his or her own efforts. That does not mean that others do not have a role in helping this person be successful, but an individual contributor will be held accountable for getting assigned work done as directed.

A physician is a hybrid--one who functions primarily as an individual contributor for patient care but who also has managerial responsibilities for a support team--nurses, office staff, etc.

Job fit

Why is this topic of job fit important? Because many people struggle to find satisfaction in management roles when they in fact might be better suited to functioning as an individual contributor. They are conflicted because, on the one hand they love their work as individual contributors but are attracted to becoming a manager based on assumptions which often turn out to be false, assumptions like:

* There is more prestige in being a manager than an individual contributor.

* Positive career change often means "moving up," and that means management.

* Managers make more money.

* Managers have more power to make things happen.

So what is best for you? Do you really have the talent to be a manager or would you be better off as an individual contributor? To help you answer that question, I want you first to challenge the above assumptions and second, provide some questions to consider.

Beware of making assumptions!

Having spent most of my professional life providing advice to executives around career issues, I can tell you that almost everyone gets tripped up by the assumptions they make about career paths involving management. Let's take the four assumptions mentioned above.

"Managers have more prestige."

Well, it depends. Some managers will tell you it holds little prestige for them because they no longer can have the direct control of their results and, therefore, rewards and recognition like they did as an individual contributor.

Suppose, for example, you now are the department head of cardiology at a hospital where you previously were a cardiologist known for the innovative surgical techniques you developed. Now, in addition to your clinical load you must, as department head, attend more meetings of hospital leadership, deal with difficult people problems that previously others addressed for you, and, on top of everything else, you just learned your budget was cut.

On the one hand there is prestige in being the top leader of cardiology but at what price? Do you still have the time to devote to your innovative side? Are you deriving the level of satisfaction and productivity that you did as an individual contributor? Your answers depend on what really motivates you and brings you the most satisfaction.

"Management is a positive for your career."

Moving up is frequently thought of as a positive for one's career. It is recognition for having done good work so far, it speaks of your potential in the eyes of the organization's leadership and it literally moves you "up" in the org chart. So, yes it can be positive.

But that assumes that positive career moves for you are the same ones that make logical sense to those who promoted you. Some managers will tell you that the best day in their life was when they made the difficult decision to move out of a management job and back into an individual contributor role that better fit their passion and skills.

The real definition of a positive career move is one in which you do what you love and derive the satisfaction of aligning your talents with the role. Not all managers can say that. Be careful not to let the values and assumptions of others determine what you do with your life. How many of our parents, for example, had a specific career path in mind for us because they liked the idea of you heading in that direction?

"Managers make more money."

This is often true, especially the higher you go in the organization. Larger bonuses reflect greater responsibility. Senior managers should receive greater compensation given the risks they take, the responsibilities they carry and the impact they potentially can make by their decisions and foresight. In that sense privilege is commensurate with responsibility.

However, many individual contributors who excel in their roles also have the potential of greater financial gain. Many physicians sometimes find it to be more financially rewarding to be an individual contributor in a physician practice. Their compensation is a function of being part of a shared practice where someone else manages the office and personnel while the physicians perform mostly as individual contributors.


Their earnings are a combination of equity from the practice, compensation from hospitals and other sources such as research grants. These earnings can be larger than what they would make as a senior leader in a hospital, for example.

"Managers have more power."

This depends very much on the political landscape of the organization. By "political" I mean how power and influence are played out in an organization, who controls the agendas, etc. All too often managers find themselves out on the limb with no one watching their back.

Promises are made during recruitment about resources to be made available to them but in reality that support simply isn't there. And it's lacking not just because of economic conditions but also because it's often more important who you know than what you know.

Personnel or capital decisions can be undermined by influential board members and others with special interests. Managers and individual contributors both operate within political realities and derive benefits and liabilities accordingly that must be explored carefully upfront.

So what are some ways to test your fit for management vs. individual contributor roles? The following questions about job fit are a good place to start.

1. What do I want to be accountable for? The work of others, my team, or the work for which I am directly responsible? A physician executive is accountable for other people, initiatives and budgets and often has direct responsibility contributing to the overall goals of the organization. A physician has a narrower focus toward patient care. Depending on myriad factors, including the stage in your career, you will answer this question differently. I often hear managers complain about having to deal with people problems; they just want to be free to focus on "more important things"--a sure sign that management might not be the role for them.

2. What am I most passionate about? Will this role allow me to leverage that passion as much as I could in another role? Are the challenges in this role aligned with what I really want to do with my life or am I forced to compromise some of my passion and interests to satisfy other needs in the organization? If you are in the right job you will accept the less exciting parts as "noise" in the system and not make them deal breakers.

3. What aligns best with my personality? Am I enough of a people person to get energized about developing others, mediating conflict, motivating young staff and navigating the politics of our organization? Do I prefer working alone more than with others? What feedback have I received about how I interact with others that might shed light on my fit as a manager of people? Many technically proficient people are promoted to be managers because of that expertise alone. They mistakenly think that human resources will handle whatever employee relations issues occur and therefore take responsibility for people development. Ask any HR professional and they will tell you that they cannot and should not handle all these areas but need to share that responsibility with line managers.

4. How can I best leverage my skills? Similar to personality traits, skills that accompany management are often different than those required for effectiveness as an individual contributor. There is a set of technical skills any health care professional must have for their specialty to be effective regardless of their role. In addition, managers must demonstrate the ability to plan, organize, coach, review and oversee the work of others. Do those skills come naturally for you? Effective use of skills involves innate motivation to use them as well as knowledge and experience gained on the job. Don't be fooled into thinking that what lies outside your motivation will simply "come with experience"--beware of that assumption!

5. How do I prefer using my time? A manager's time is less under his or her control, in most cases, than those in individual contributor roles. Managers often have more meetings compared with individual contributors. Everyone must collaborate today, so meetings are inevitable, but new managers are often surprised at the increase in meetings they must call or attend in order to get their job done. More time is also taken up with people issues and administration.

I have purposely oversimplified the complexities that surround responsibilities and demands on managers and individual contributors to drive home the points about job fit. Your job satisfaction and impact on the organization and your career depend on making sound "right fit" decisions.

RELATED ARTICLE: 8. A focus on the patient

Industry hires physicians not only for their expertise in a specific therapeutic area and understanding of the practice habits of their peers, but also to help legitimize the company's effort and protect patients who will ultimately be using the products.

Industry needs team players and independent thinkers, not "yes men and women." Physicians are expected to bring institutional courage to the program and speak frankly when the patient is not benefiting as much as what will sell with your peers.

Companies need physician executives to keep priorities straight when it is tempting to look the other way.

In the end, the switch from practicing physician to industry executive takes time, effort and preparation. And while moving over to "the dark side" may not be right for everyone, for those who can successfully navigate the transition, the opportunities and rewards for both the individual and the company in question are significant.

For details on placing classified ads, consult our rate card in the online media kit at or call 800/562-8088

Dalton Boggs and Associates

A professional consulting firm assisting client organizations in the executive search process.

Specializing in physician management positions.

Resume or vitae may be forwarded to our office:

P.O. Box 2288, Edmond, Oklahoma 73083

Telephone: (800) 348-1654

Telefax: (405) 348-1693


Bill Tiffan

Principal at T2 Management Consultants Sarasota, F1.
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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