Discover more from Meditations on Life, Technology, Leadership, and Everything
What's the best way to spend time at work?
and more importantly, do you even know how you spend your time?
One thing that I consider a great stroke of luck is that, when I was early in my management career, I got very supportive managers and a company that (at the time) was spending a huge amount of money in training managers, especially the few ones that were stepping into the role from Technology1.
And in one of those training I was introduced to a model that was very influential for me and shaped the way I organized my work as I stepped into a Senior Manager role: the Four stages of contribution.
A simple model to think about your contribution
Every model is an approximation, and there is always the risk to take models too seriously when thinking about your behavior. But this model is particularly useful to set expectations with your own manager.
The Four Stages of contribution is based on the research of Drs. Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson, it models the ways people contribute to the organization into four stages:
Dependent contribution, performing a role or a task for which you are not fully autonomous
Independent contribution, performing a role or a task for which you do not require external help
Contributing through others, performing a role or a task in which you do not contribute directly to the work itself but rather act as mentor/coach/facilitator
Strategic contribution, performing a role or a task in which your main contribution is related to how you shape the high level direction of the organization and not involved in the detail of the work
Note: This is a very high level description of this model, there are a ton of resources out there to look at this in more details, I will link something as we go but do your own research if you are interested in the topic.
How it applies to you
One might be thinking that the four stages each represent some kind of “ladder” in which you move from stage 1 to 4 depending on your job title. But that is not quite how this works.
Inside a company anyone, regardless of their title and role, will contribute at different levels and with varying depth depending on the topic. Nobody is “just” an independent contributor, nobody only write strategy documents, etc etc
So you should see those stages a continuum in which you slowly change the amount of time you spend in each stage as your role and seniority change. Sometimes, for example after a promotion, going back to a more dependent contribution than when you were in the previous role.
How to use the framework to improve your contribution
During that training we were asked to estimate the breakdown of our time in each stage both the current contribution and the ideal breakdown if we could magically change how we spend our time.
Mine looked something like this:
What happened was quite funny: the current contributions were all pretty skewed toward the lower stages but then in the ideal row everyone wrote an excessive amount of strategic contribution and very little dependent or contributing through others.
The trainer, expecting this outcome, proceeded to ask if our manager would really need that amount of strategic contribution from us and what was our job as senior manager if not contributing through others?
This was my lightbulb moment, it gave me so much clarity on what I was supposed to do, and I used this exercise mutiple times later in my career.
Interestingly enough, this research shows very similar results across a different population: when comparing individual vs manager expectations they observed that people tend to overestimate how much time they are supposed to spend on the higher stages vs the lower stages.
In my experience this kind of misalignment is the cause #1 of frustration for high performing people: They want to be promoted and focus on contribution that they think is valuable while the manager sees little or no value in it but also doesn’t want to spoonfeed someone that should be promoted. This exercise allows both sides to align without micromanaging.
Archetypes of contribution
If you are a manager, how do you start having this conversation? In this section I will provide my own personal view on which ranges are “normal” for different roles to act as a guide.
But before your read further, please keep in mind that every company is different and everyone has different expectations. This list is my own personal view on how people should spend their time and you should use your own judgment before using it.
The ranges are there to make sure you understand that this is not an exact science. In fact you will notice that people will spend much, much more time on Stage 1 as they onboard in a new role, but for the sake of clarity I avoided that in the table.
Another thing that you might find strange is the fact that, while the IC progression is pretty smooth, the managerial progression is a bit of a rollercoaster.
This is based on my own experience in which middle-management roles are all about connecting the strategy to the floor, while the executives have much more individual contribution in the form of writing documents, meeting clients, doing budgets and, sometimes if you are lucky, writing some prototype and code as CTO.
All models are wrong, some are useful. Never forget this as you apply this model to your everyday work.
I might end up writing a full post about this later, but one thing that is absolutely consistent in my experience is that people in Technology that go into management are always trained more and are generally more scrutinized than people in other professions. There are many reasons I can think of, but this causes a very interesting effect in which the sector that seems the least human-friendly ends up being the one with the best managers.