The wrong kind of individual contributor will kill your company

What you want is someone who can see beyond their own achievements.
What you want is someone who can see beyond their own achievements.
Image: Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
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An individual contributor, someone who pursues a career path that doesn’t involve management, can be just as valuable as a director who manages 10 to 100 people.

The key is to make sure you hire the right kind of individual contributor (IC). Some ICs take the “individual” part of their title too far. They prioritize their own impact and ignore the achievements of the rest of this team. What you want is someone who might better be called a “team contributor.”

I’ve seen companies get burned because they did not consider that teamwork matters when hiring and evaluating the performance of ICs. But it does.

“Team” contributors (TCs, if you will) have strong communication skills. They are open to learning from their colleagues while also open to helping others. Even though they’re not managing, they’re holding themselves accountable for raising team standards and making those around them better.

Spotting valuable team-focused ICs who will perform well in groups starts in the interview process. It’s vital to keep a keen eye out for people who talk about how they’ve helped others succeed versus simply their own success. I’ve used these interview questions to understand whether an IC operates like a TC.

  • Tell me about the worst team you’ve worked on. What were the characteristics that made it feel that way? How did you handle it in your current role, how many people do you rely on to get your job done? (Look for the value he or she places on a team environment and his or her current co-workers.)
  • How do you deal with conflict at work? Describe a conflict you can recall successfully resolving or a situation you learned from. (Look for an objective understanding of the situation, and a strong reflection on experiences.)
  • Can you recall a situation where a team member (peer or subordinate) did not perform as well as you would have hoped or when your team fell apart? How did you handle this? How did they respond, and what was the overall outcome? (Look for a willingness to provide and accept feedback.)
  • What is the strongest team environment you’ve ever been in? Why was that?  This can include work or otherwise, such as sports. (Look for the value he or she places on a team environment and their coworkers)
  • Give me an example of how you made someone else look good. (Look for ease in answering and a real genuine appreciation for how that impacted him or her)

Answers to these questions will often give you clues as to whether a candidate is people-driven in addition to process-driven. Process-driven candidates often believe that systems and processes can solve problems without thinking about how people can influence results. A people-driven candidate is one who assesses his or her team members first and prioritizes collaboration. Good signs that someone falls into this category include narratives of getting energy from seeing others succeed; helping others in times of success as well as failure; and awareness when it comes to another team members success. These are the individuals who take a look in the mirror instead of relocating blame to others.

When hiring, especially in sales, your best bet is to hire those who frame answers as, “Here are my individual achievements, and here’s how I got there—with the help of three coordinators, two executives and a strong product that solved a problem.” Team members should always know they couldn’t do it by themselves.

Train your eyes and ears to be receptive to individual contributors with a team attitude. Nobody wins anything alone.

Glenn Handler is a co-Founder and general partner of Oceans.