The transition from individual contributor to management isn’t exactly the simplest one, there are some fundamental shifts that you need to make when you go from dreaming about this career move to making it a reality.

It’s not always easy to make a bold career change; you can be fraught with doubt, nerves, and excitement. This is especially true if you’re making a jump up a leadership role for the first time, having previously worked as a CSM or an ‘individual contributor’.

What the customer success world needs are more mentors and coaches, and a lot fewer superstars and lone wolves who’re just out there to make a name for themselves.

This article will consider how we can get individual contributors to start thinking more broadly about how they're helping others around them to be successful, not only how they’re succeeding in their careers.

Specifically, I’m going to look at:

Let’s dig in.


How does the status of the customer success industry affect the transition from a Customer Success Manager to a leadership role?

As the overall customer success function and community matures, there really needs to be some focus put on how we grow and mature our team, so members can actually take on leadership positions.

When I talk about leadership, it's not just being a manager and having a title, neither is it just about getting that promotion. Rather, it's about developing the mentoring, sponsoring, and coaching abilities that are critical to being a good leader.

Everyone needs to have some sort of maturity plan; a growth objective to aspire to. You want to avoid being stuck in the same monotonous rut of doing all the same things over and over again. It’s all too easy to view the next QPR as ‘just another meeting’, or to see the next customer success plan as ‘just another document’ that you need to deliver.

This shift is incredibly important and one I don’t want to gloss over. Within a promotion, you go from being focused on the customer’s success, to employee success. Being success-focused goes hand-in-hand with being a good manager, focusing on getting your team to do well in their own careers and, most importantly, in their own engagements with customers.

In other words, customer focus becomes employee focus.

However, this offers challenges to both CSMs who are looking to transition and also the leadership itself. Let's start with the CSMs a.k.a. the individual contributors.

What kind of challenges can Customer Success Managers face when looking to transition to management?

As I previously mentioned, in order to succeed in your new role you need to shift your focus from being the superstar or lone wolf to being a manager with people dependent on your guidance.

Take this scenario for instance: you're a hot-shot CSM, an individual contributor who operates on the idea that you're going to get everything done. You're going to make the customer successful, you're going to build out the CS plan and you're going to have the amazing QBR.

Sure, all of that stuff is great. But at a certain point, when you accept the mentality of being a manager, the focus shifts. It becomes less about you doing your job well, and more about getting the people around you to succeed in their job.

What tends to happen in this transition is your role changes. You go from being an IC to a manager who’s responsible for the success of an entire team, and this means changing the way you interact with everyone. Rather than trying to solve all the problems, you're there to try and mitigate risk. And you're trying to remove obstacles, and remove barriers to success that your team members may actually have.

Additionally, as you move from IC to manager, you're now going to be an advocate for your team, making sure that you’re providing them with the greatest opportunities to enable their growth, and the best channels for communication and motivation. If those two things don't exist, then you can potentially fail as a manager.

It’s very easy to complain about a bad manager. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there, right? We've all probably experienced a manager who wasn’t engaging, or they weren’t a fantastic communicator. Perhaps they didn't allow you the freedom to do what you're supposed to be doing. Let’s face it, it’s easier than you think to pick up a few poor managerial habits and end up being a shoddy manager, a role nobody wants.

That's just one of the aspects of this career jump. You have to be intentional about this process, have a certain clarity about what you're getting yourself into, and not assume the best or worst of every single situation, but to think about how you're going to engage with different people.

Going from an IC to a manager is a little bit different, which stems directly from the first point: as a manager, you have to be open to a number of facts.

What kind of challenges do managers face when employees want to move into leadership roles?

Firstly, you don't own your team. You aren’t a parent who has to keep their kids in line or be the disciplinarian. To that effect, you’re not even responsible for your own team's success, that’s something they're responsible for, just like they're responsible for their own career trajectory.

What you are here for, and responsible for, is creating the circumstances and opportunities for them to be successful. Sometimes that means pulling yourself out of the way, or pulling other people out of the way so that the team can actually be successful themselves.

Secondly, there can be no place for ego. As a manager, the biggest struggle that you’re going to undergo will be against your own ego. You shouldn’t wish your team success because it reflects well on you; that shouldn't be the end goal, rather a fortunate byproduct of what happens when you allow your team to be successful amongst themselves.

However, this doesn’t mean you won’t be recognized or rewarded for good work. Instead, it illustrates a crucial point central to this transition: your goals need to be invested in the team's success, rather than one’s own individual success as a manager.

How to foster an environment in an organization that is conducive for individual contributors to transition to management roles

A lot of these concepts I’ve discussed aren’t only relevant to customer success, but to management in general. They’re ideas that can apply to product management, or program management, or sales.

If you’re transitioning from an IC to a management role, you need to start with the basics. Listen to your team, take some time to discover the individual goals of each team member, and the wider team as a whole. Ask yourself: what are they trying to accomplish? What are their aspirations and what are their career objectives?

Without knowing these key pieces of information, you won’t be able to engage with them. To be a good manager, you need to identify what strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities are at play, and then coach them through and minimize these weaknesses. What you want to avoid is leaving your team vulnerable to potential threats as a result of unidentified weaknesses.

As a manager, your job is to create a culture of transparency, authenticity, and communication. In doing so, it gives the employees themselves the opportunity to own their own success. It enables them to focus on not only doing their job well, but thinking about what that job might look like in the next six to eight months, or even two or three years.

The other part of that is challenging your team members to actually hold themselves accountable to you and to each other. If you're going to move into management, the focus needs to shift away from me to us. If you can instill that idea early on as a manager to your team members – the individual contributors – then it makes it that much easier for that transition to occur. Essentially, it evokes the classic, ‘we before me.’

Here are some tactics or tips that are useful for CSMs who want to make the transition to management from being individual contributors.

Management is bi-directional

Let’s imagine you’re the manager in this scenario. In many ways, the people who report to you will be managing you. Their communication and interactions with you will set the precedence of what’s to come, what you can expect out of them as individual contributors.

As a team member or an IC, if you aren’t taking the time to ‘manage up’ towards your manager, then you're missing a huge opportunity to actually understand how to progress your career. From a management perspective, it’s critical to ensure that you are implementing two types of meetings; your one-to-one meetings and quarterly reviews.

Tactical one-to-one meetings

Your one-to-one meetings (1:1s) with your team members should be both tactical and strategic. Now, sometimes that might necessitate generating a separate meeting to strategize, but if you can encompass both of those aspects in every meeting, then you'll have a better opportunity for coaching and mentoring.

Whether your 1:1s are scheduled weekly or bi-weekly, an effort should be made to ask your team members:

  • What’s going on?
  • How can I help you?
  • What do you need assistance with?
  • Can somebody in the wider organization help you with this?

Gaining their insight with these three questions will aid your success as a manager:

  • How are you doing?
  • How am I doing as a manager?
  • How do you think the broader team's doing?

These questions supply an opportunity for an open dialogue around any pain points and allow you to raise a solution.

Strategical, long-term performance reviews

In addition to 1:1s, there should be more in-depth, secondary meetings between line manager and team members, but kept to once a quarter, or every few months. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to management, or scheduling meetings (if only!) because it ultimately depends on how your business runs and the nature of your workload.

It’s important for team leaders to remember that they don’t own their CSMs’ career success. As individual contributors, CSMs hold that power and should be the ones to drive that meeting. By nature, these types of meetings take a little longer than regular 1:1s or quick catch-ups; they’re designed so you can take a step back from the tactical elements of business and ask larger questions surrounding career satisfaction and progression.

And that meeting is a little bit longer. It's taking a step back away from the tactical day-to-day things, and ask:

  • Where are you going in the next six months?
  • Where are you going in the next year? Are the goals that we set up last year still the same ones that you have this year?
  • What are your ambitions?
  • What are your career goals?
  • What are you trying to accomplish? Is it still in customer success?

In certain scenarios, you may have team members considering other opportunities within the organization, or at an entirely different company. No one wants to lose team members, but it boils down to one thing: they're not yours to lose. And as a manager, you should help facilitate their success.

A manager’s job is to help expedite their growth into other departments or into other companies, in some cases.

Now, not all managers are perfect. Let’s say you’re an IC and unfortunately your manager isn’t doing this; it’s up to you to take it upon yourself and actualize those meetings. Ask for some time where you can talk through career objectives and goals, and come prepared.

To wrap up...

Transitioning from an IC role to a leadership position isn’t always plain sailing – there’s a variety of different skills involved compared to individual contributions. If you’re planning to make the jump, there’s one nugget of wisdom you should start thinking about: how will I create an environment that encourages people’s career progression, whether they’re rising within your existing ranks, or moving on. That’s something to consider.