Semantics, Sensibilities, and Sensitivities
What it means (to me) to be an individual contributor
Note: This post includes a late in the game alliterative addition of "serendipity"
Merriam Webster’s general or connotative definition of “semantics is “the language used to achieve a desired effect on an audience especially through the use of words with novel or dual meanings”. You can look at my LinkedIn profile and see how long I have been in the workforce. All those years and I have never directly managed a team let alone a single team member. I have managed summer interns, long-term temps, or team members for specific projects, but I have never been someone’s supervisor. I’ve had the job title of Manager, Senior Manager, and Director without people management responsibilities. I have completed high-level projects working with the C-suite. I have had complete ownership of all benefit functions (health & welfare and retirement) without support from a team.
I am an individual contributor.
I did a quick Google search and the first item that popped up was a 2015 LinkedIn article which defined individual contributor as ‘the role of the senior professional who works without people management responsibilities”. I admit that before I fully internalized what it meant to be an individual contributor (sensitivities real, imagined or otherwise), I felt lacking. Even though I know, without doubt, that I am really good at what I do, the missing people management bullet on my resume was like a tap on the shoulder saying “Laurie, what’s up with that?” Now, I can saw with pride (and sensibility) that I unilaterally managed:
Employee Support: New hires, open enrollment, life events, education, claims, everyday (and night) questions about coverage, and communications
Advisor and Vendor Relationships: Insurers, external legal counsel, auditors, retirement plan recordkeepers, compliance partners (i.e. ACA compliance)
Compliance Activities: Including diligent administration of plans according to plan documents, preparing & disseminating required communications, annual filings, managing plan audits, ensuring HIPAA standards are maintained
Context is also important. I worked at one company for over nine years with over seven of those years being in a benefits role. The company had about 450 U.S. based employees and roughly 175 overseas. I managed a combination of standard U.S. benefit plans, international health and life plans, and plans specific to international locations including coverage for individuals working in developing or war-torn countries. For part of that time, I worked with my manager to support the company’s annual/mid-year compensation processes. I also independently managed other compensation initiatives such as equity/parity analyses and salary surveys. The next two employers had less than 200 employees and the benefits responsibilities were justifiably a one-person show. My most recent employer had a large benefits team, but the organizational structure was flat; my supervisor had 6 direct reports including me. The nature of my position and size of the organizations drove my status as an individual contributor. At the same time, my in-depth benefits knowledge, propensity for establishing detailed processes, and natural inclination to collaborate, educate, and mentor well positions me to supervise a team member.
Lest I end this post without a reference to something seemingly unrelated but part of my thought process. When I think about my individual contributor roles, I think of Free to Be…You and Me, an album and companion book released 50 years ago last month. Those who know, know. If you have young children and aren’t already familiar, buy it or download it from any of the music subscription services. It’s as relevant today as it was when I listened to it as a child and when I listen to it today. I could quote a line from any one of the skits that appropriately fits the context here, but the overall gist is knowing that you have options, you don’t have to put yourself in a box based on experience or other people’s expectations, be proud of your accomplishments, and allow others the freedom to do the same. The is an impressive list of writers and performer involved with Free to Be…You and Me.
Now the serendipity. The day after I wrote up to this very point in the blog, my mom sent me a text: “Pamela Paul has an article in the NY Times on the Opinion page titled ‘Free to be You and Me. Or Not.’” I went to pre-school and kindergarten with Pamela Paul’s older brother before they moved to a neighboring school district. I used to have playdates at their house and if memory serves, they had a cool playhouse in their back yard. Thanks to social media, I reconnected with her brother on Facebook over 10 years ago.
In the spirit of “Free to Be…You and Me”, shifting my mindset regarding the value of being an individual contributor has allowed me to use my voice and expertise to be the “go to” person for all things benefits. And, to wrap things up, I’ll share the final stanza of the poem “Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron” by from Free to be…You and Me, written by Dan Greenburg, performed by Billy De Wolf:
“A person should wear what he wants to. And not just what other folks say A person should do what she likes to A person's a person that way.”