Leading as an Individual Contributor

leadership 3By James Arsenault, Director of Strategic Communications, Ceridian

As we progress in our careers, we’ll spend time in different roles as individual contributors and as managers. Both are valuable experiences – in fact, spending time understanding the perspective and challenges of each role can help you be more effective in both. However, leadership should be a constant theme throughout your career, regardless of your role.

When you first begin your career, it’s not always easy to differentiate between management and leadership – it’s natural to make the assumption that they’re one and the same. After all, what form of leadership could be more direct than guiding the team that reports to you? However, while there are certainly elements of leadership in management, leadership is a much broader concept.

So, what’s the difference? What does leadership look like when you’re an individual contributor? There are three key types of leadership that can shine through in an organization regardless of whether or not you manage a team.

Cultural Leadership

A strong culture is built on two key components: collective behavior that emerges from shared values and visible leadership that establishes new norms. The leadership component is particularly important during times of change, where expectations might not always be clear to everyone in an organization. Be a visible leader and display the values of your organization. Don’t be afraid to set an example for those around you – people recognize a first mover! It’s not always comfortable to put yourself out there, but there are almost always others willing to follow along. Be a coalition builder – you can lead a team without managing one.

Thought Leadership

For all the challenges of an “always on” connected workplace, one of the greatest advantages of modern communications is the speed at which an idea can spread. Any person, regardless of their station or responsibility within an organization, can contribute game-changing ideas. Communicated well, a bold new concept can set direction for entire teams or more! As you develop your personal knowledge base and skill set, teach others what you know. You will have a cascading effect that elevates everyone around you. The work you do can be a form of leadership in itself. Set the bar high for quality; understand that derivative work will flow from what you achieve.

Innovation and Risk-Taking

One of the greatest advantages of working as an individual contributor is the opportunity to develop unique perspectives – unencumbered by group-think and pressure (real or imagined) to reach consensus. Be ready to offer a dissenting voice; have confidence in your mastery of the role you are in. As an individual contributor, there is likely no one else in the organization who spends as much time or energy on the things you’re responsible for. Finally, take the opportunity to nurture independent projects. We’ve all heard of Google’s famous “20% time” that every employee can allocate to independent projects. It was one of those projects that eventually spawned Gmail!

Whether you’re a manager or an individual contributor, leadership will be an essential trait for you to develop throughout your career. Find opportunities to learn from other accomplished leaders; display your capabilities; and nurture leadership in others (you don’t need to be a manager for that, either!).


James ArsenaultJames Arsenault is Director of Strategic Communications for Ceridian is  responsible for understanding and communicating how Dayforce HCM helps organizations empower their employees, improve productivity and increase profitability. Prior to joining Dayforce, James worked in corporate development at StormFisher Biogas (a renewable energy company acquired by a joint venture of GE and AES). James has a degree in Business from the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University. James lives in Toronto and enjoys music, travel, and technology.