Grow your design career as an individual contributor, part 2

By Erin S.
10 min read
September 27, 2022
An illustration of a path looping through an imagined cityscape.


You don’t have to become a manager to grow your design career. So what’s your next step to advance?

Change can offer an opportunity to reflect. Over time, many people ask themselves: “How can I make the most of what’s going on in the world to figure out what I really want?” and “What’s most meaningful to me in my personal life and work life?” I’ve faced these questions throughout my own career transitions and as a content designer at Meta.

At Meta, we consider being an individual contributor (IC) and manager as separate, parallel paths. As Alicia D. writes in her story, Grow your design career as an individual contributor, part 1, “Leadership is a powerful and impactful pathway, but embracing it shouldn’t necessarily mean embracing management.” Yet, this is a real conundrum many of us face. In fact, internal research at Meta has shown that many senior-level individual contributors assume the only path forward is management, even when they doubt that path is right for them.

Here’s my story of how I embraced leadership and shifted away from people management at Meta. I’ll share my turning point story, cover what I think it means to be an IC leader and identify tactics you can employ to build your leadership skills. My hope is that you’ll leave with a better sense of what it means to be a leader as you level up and grow.

My own turning point

I think of turning points as major milestones in your career. They’re often combined with a turbo boost of performance or experience that takes you to the next level. I’ve experienced a few of these over the course of my career, and sometimes they were associated with a promotion.

At Meta, I experienced a turning point when I was deciding between IC and manager. I was hired as a manager and was considering whether people management or product leadership was where I was best suited. Over and over, I told myself, “I should be a manager.” This played on repeat through most of my career, even outside of Meta. However, there’s a bit of poison in that sentence: the word “should.” Psychologists, therapists and career coaches teach us that “should” is a harmful word — it sets us up for pursuing something that might not be best for us.

Shifting out of this mindset is really hard. Outside of Meta, the career ladder looks something like this: You start as an intern, gain experience doing IC work and then graduate into management, where you’re often heading up product ownership, strategy and team growth.

I was on that path as a manager at Meta, looking toward a director role. But something didn’t feel right. At our company, managers are primarily tasked with growing people’s careers, improving team health and evangelizing the team’s work. Managers (at least content design managers) do more people management and less direct product work.

Looking at the management path, something felt missing in it. I knew I was most passionate about going deep into a product and pushing the work, building a strategy and helping teams move to achieve that strategy. And as I considered this director role, I saw myself managing managers and getting farther away from being able to do this. I felt that I should remain on the manager track in order to succeed, but this was a mental trap.

I had to figure out what was strengthening for me. Ultimately, an opportunity opened, and I became the first full-time content designer on Meta Portal, a smart video-calling device and the company’s first homegrown hardware product. After 2 years on the Meta Portal team, I was promoted to director.

Becoming a senior IC allowed me to influence the product and the team.

I grew a lot once I began working as an IC again. IC leadership looks different than management leadership because the former allows for deeper intimacy with your subject, product or practice. This lets you lead in a different, complementary way to how a people manager might lead. Here’s what I was able to do in this new role:

Build crucial relationships.

I made it a priority to be active and present with cross-functional product owners and leaders across teams to ensure consistency with the Meta company brand. To do this, I leveraged relationship-building skills I gained from my time in management at Meta and previous roles. To position myself as a leader on the team, I built relationships with people who ended up in leadership positions as our team evolved. I made sure to tend to these relationships as the team grew.

Stretch into general UX leadership.

Moving into general user experience (UX) leadership meant growing product design, content design, research teams and product formation. I helped define the product and identify what success looked like. And when priorities shifted, I was able to step in to keep us on goal.

Move fast within a lot of shifting priorities.

Because I had already earned the trust and respect of cross-functional leaders, I was able to step into ambiguous or friction-filled situations to drive and influence strategic and tactical decisions.

Create foundational standards.

I set standards for what cross-functional teams could expect from content and product design and helped them see the value of our work. I also set standards for UX patterns, terms and principles that helped guide cross-functional teams and the designers who would some day join those teams.

As you progress into senior IC leadership, the ways you grow might look different from mine, but you’ll use your deep, discipline-specific knowledge to start influencing change on a larger scale.

So what about you?

Many people feel some degree of anxiety when it comes to figuring out how to operate as a senior contributor. It might seem like the more you grow, the easier it is to come up with the right answer. But things aren’t that simple. While you can base your thinking on past experience, you might be faced with a problem to which you might not have the answer. You may also find out that your manager doesn’t necessarily have the answer either. And maybe even your discipline doesn’t have it. As you level up, problems and solutions become more ambiguous, and the way you handle it is how you become a leader.

Embrace ambiguity.

We talk a lot about embracing ambiguity at Meta. Advancing into the most senior lC levels is about accepting and leaning into the unknown. And for your career, overcoming ambiguity means more frequently deciding what constitutes a problem to be solved.

A chart shows role ambiguity increasing as career independence increases.

At Meta and most other companies, career levels are pretty well-defined. A lot of people go through those levels, and it’s pretty straightforward to define what a typical output looks like at each level. Once you hit a senior level, things change and your career path becomes less formulaic. As you grow, your career path becomes more varied and bespoke based on your unique qualities and strengths. There are fewer people at your level, which means you have fewer models. Roles become more ambiguous, creating an opportunity for you to carve your own path.

Ambiguity at senior levels is a good thing. It lets people flex and contribute in ways that are unique to them. Ambiguity also gives people more control over their own senior career path, and it gives the business flexibility to utilize senior talent in a way that’s right for the business or product at any given time.

A chart shows influence over one's team and products increasing as one's career grows.

As you level up, the work doesn’t necessarily get harder. What does get harder is managing critical relationships and working through the roadblocks. You can start to see this when you begin growing out of your mid-level contributor role. At that point, you start to have a wider impact on your peers and cross-functional leads. And when you become more senior, you’re expected to have direct influence on product strategy, product quality, product success and team operations.

Succeeding as a senior IC is less about tactical skills and more about core leadership skills. That’s the big difference in leveling up. You'll be asked: Have you earned the trust and partnership of your cross-functional leaders? Have you helped the team become more efficient and aligned to goals? Are you representing and pushing for the highest standards? These are the aspects you’ll be held to in your evaluation.

How to identify your own future turning point

While no one can forecast exactly when, how or where your next turning point will occur, I recommend a way to help you see what it might look like. Try using this formula:

Graphic text reads: The turning point formula: Opportunity plus unique strengths plus self-drive.

Opportunity: What’s available to you at any given moment? Unique strengths: What are you best at, and what do you enjoy? Self-drive: What are you ready for and what can you handle taking on right now?

When you answer these questions, you may start to see a picture of what actions and situations could create your next turning point. But as you do, try not to get stuck in an obsessive loop of questions about things you can’t understand or control, such as: What’s really expected of me? How much scope should I have? What are the “hot” products to be working on? What are others doing at my level?

Attempting to answer these questions wastes a lot of energy and time that you could spend finding and opening new doors for yourself. So instead, ask yourself questions about your own ambitions, strengths and how or when you thrive. Questions like these will yield better results: What are my unique strengths? Am I best at systems thinking? Visionary thinking? Something else? What does the company need from me right now? Who do I know who can help me open doors and unlock opportunities? What do I want, and when do I want it?

Core leadership skills expected of senior contributors

After you’ve done your homework, how do you know you’re starting to operate as a more senior IC?

You own and solve the hardest problems.

I think a lot of people assume this means new products, but it doesn’t. Hard problems are problems the company is facing that are affecting our audiences, business or internal tools.

You thrive in ambiguity.

We talk a lot about thriving in ambiguity during interviews with candidates. This becomes even more important as you level up, especially how you help teams through it. It’s important to be able to help others find their way in uncertain situations.

You consistently offer good judgment.

Applying good judgment applies to both design and business strategy, and it also means educating people on your decision-making process. People need you to provide more holistic recommendations and thinking and to walk them through those ideas.

You help teams simplify and stay on goal.

You get teams to focus on the meat of the problem they’re trying to solve. This is 90 percent of what design leaders do.

You wrangle cross-functional players to get things done.

You connect people, rally troops and prioritize and focus on helping the team move forward, all while producing high-quality work.

You’re a strong voice of escalation.

You speak out when things are going awry or when your team isn’t building something in the best interests of our audiences. This tactic requires strong relationships with top leadership, which is why it’s best to continuously nurture these relationships. To be effective, people need to trust you when you offer feedback, ideas or solutions. In regard to building relationships, I often hear people say, “I had a meeting with that person. It must all be good now.” But once isn’t enough — just like you wouldn’t water your garden once and expect it to thrive, you shouldn’t expect your relationships to thrive without care either.

You represent the highest standards.

You go beyond creating standards. You enforce them and educate partners about why they matter. This is a core distinction between IC leaders and managers — IC leaders are intimately involved in product work and can — and should — influence and drive quality day-to-day, while also ensuring cross-functional partners understand why this is necessary and what to expect.

You influence the roadmap.

You tend relationships with key leaders and influence where your product or service is going. To influence this trajectory, it’s important to speak up often and make yourself visible. Position yourself as a lead and knowledge keeper at all-hands meetings, publish internal notes and share strategies and points of view. Sometimes you may feel like you don’t have the “right” to do this — whether it’s because of your tenure or discipline — but this is where you have to “just do it.” Make yourself influential and you will be.

You influence team structure.

Quality can’t be achieved if teams aren’t running efficiently or collaborating effectively. You might think this is something for project managers and engineers to figure out, but it’s key to how you’ll ultimately influence product quality and output. Design leaders push back on team structure that’s causing ineffective design practice and represent their discipline to show how that work gets done. Again, this is not only a manager’s job. You can certainly partner with your manager here, but it’s also something that you can confidently drive and escalate.

You help others grow in their career.

You’ve been in the shoes of your early-career colleagues, so you’ll often have ideas on how to guide them. In meetings, you’re open to helping them work through problems. You may also volunteer to lead panels or give talks on how early-career contributors can improve.

You facilitate the best collaborative thinking.

You know how to get people to generate ideas, synthesize them and articulate them so that they are actionable. And you create space to make this happen.

You pull people together to solve problems for the company.

As an early-career or mid-level IC, you’re often solving micro-level problems for which you (or your small team) are responsible. But as you grow, you become attuned to more macro-level problems whose solutions require multidisciplinary thinking. And sometimes, you might be one of the few, if not only, people who know who else needs to be “in the room.”

Those last two imperatives get at helping teams motivate and produce great results. Some people may think that being an IC leader is about solely identifying a problem and solving it solo. But it’s not. It’s about solving together for the benefit of the company, the product and our audiences.

How to get started

Take charge. It’s not just your manager who gets you to a senior level. Your career path is on you, and you need to own it with the support of your manager.

At the beginning and middle levels, we look to our managers for clear and specific guidance around what opportunities are available and whether we should pursue them. As you level up, you’ll become less reliant on your manager to do this work. You’ll start to do more of this yourself, through the relationships and connections you’ve built along with your understanding of how your strengths match up to your company’s priorities. Ideally, your manager will become your partner and help you unblock yourself while keeping an eye out for opportunities that might match your strengths and skills.

Once you’re in the “take charge” mindset, look out for those opportunities. You may find them in new spaces such as upcoming projects or work with other teams or departments, but you may also identify them within your current work. New opportunities can also become apparent when you pay attention to your organization’s priorities and generally keep your eyes open for things other people aren’t looking for.

And of course, the people with whom you connect can help you get where you want to go. Consider finding a mentor. This person could be someone you work with, or they could be outside of your company. No matter this person’s orientation to your role or field, you’ll want this individual to help guide you and act as a sounding board. And to round out your support, purposefully build your network of peers. After all, you can learn a lot by sharing stories, challenges and desires about your career.

Disclaimer: This piece has been updated since its original publish date.

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