People Wranglers or Individual Contributors? What’s the Difference and Who Is Most Important?


Companies are finding new ways to improve the way they run. One of those ways is rethinking the way the company is structured and review the opportunities for career progression. In the most basic form, companies have the choice of opting for a flat or hierarchical structure.

A flat structure is where there are fewer layers of management. It might only be the case that there is one layer between front line workers and senior managers.

A hierarchical structure is what many companies traditionally follow where there is wide gap between junior employees and top level managers. A junior employee might have a supervisor, who has a manager who also has a manager.

In a traditional hierarchical structure, the way to progress through a company is to become a manager and have people report to you. People are starting to question whether that’s completely the right way to go about it.

There are two crucial roles that are both needed:

  • The individual contributor – someone who loves doing things and does them at a high standard.
  • The people wrangler – someone who loves to support people in helping them grow and succeed.

It was thought before that people wranglers played the most important role, but companies are now starting to see that there is just as much value in individual contributors.;

On the whole, people wranglers have a much more team-led focus, whereas individual contributors focus their efforts more on the company and its customers, collaboratively leading the business to its success.

People wranglers may find themselves coordinating the work of individual contributors; but companies work better when individual contributors are trusted to work autonomously and take ownership of high value projects.

People wranglers are passionate about developing team members, bringing them onboard and moving forward together as a team. They utilize their team members’ strengths to overcome others’ weaknesses to build a great team!

In traditional setups, unless you’re promoted to managing other people, you’re unlikely to see any change to your salary, benefits or influence within the company. This means an individual contributor is often unable to progress in a company unless they become a people wrangler and are placed into a management role.

Should it be the case that those who don’t wish to move into management roles can’t progress within the company?

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An alternative

Traditional promotion isn’t for everyone. Not everyone wants to give up their current role in favour of managing others. Some don’t want other people reporting to them and others are happy doing their current job to the best of their ability. However, this doesn’t mean they’re not interested in opportunities where they can progress within the company.

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What options are available in your company for those who want to grow without the responsibility of management, losing time to do the job they enjoy doing? It’s clear there needs to be multiple tracks for progression. Often people express interest in managerial roles because they believe it’s the only viable way of career progression.

By reducing the level of hierarchies (not having managers, on top of managers, on top of managers), you reduce bottlenecks and empower everyone to be efficient.

By providing multiple tracks for progression, you allow both roles to take responsibility in making important decisions and deciding projects, even though the direction they face may be different.

How you get there

The most important asset to building a successful business is your employees. Taking care of team members, ensuring they have the capacity to grow is the business’s responsibility. Individuals who feel empowered have a better sense of direction which ultimately leads to increased satisfaction within their role.

When considering team hierarchy, various questions crop up:

  • Is becoming a people wrangler the only option to further people’s growth?
  • How about staff members who aren’t interested in a managerial role?
  • How many individual contributors and people wranglers should you have in you company? More individual contributors than people wranglers leads to problems with reporting and effective management. However, more people wranglers than individual contributors means not enough skilled people doing the day to day work.

As an individual contributor progresses through their career track, their company influence becomes more wide ranging.

People wranglers are important for happiness of the team, cohesion, reviews, mentoring. As they progress through their track, they find themselves less involved in ground-level work; this is for individual contributors to handle.

An individual contributor might be tasked with researching and creating reports. Moving into a people wrangler role means they’re no longer involved in the creation of the reports, but play a crucial role in ensuring reports and project are done on time.

Two clearly defined paths should be supported by two clearly defined tracks for development. As you get further up the individual contributor track, you find you share some of your responsibilities with people wranglers. But as people wranglers become more senior, the less ground work they do.

Do former athletes make the best coaches? A great performer cannot be considered a great coach.

What we did

At Kayako, we’ve built a team where people wranglers along with individual contributors  help develop team members’ skill sets, forwarding the organization’s growth.

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The individual contributor’s role, in our company is to work on their goals and team goals together. It is just like treating everyone as their own CEO.

Having people wranglers and individual contributors in one team means there is  better customer focus too.

Happier the team = More customers focused team = Cheerful customers!

The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is the what they become.

What kind of people are suited for people wrangler or individual contributor roles?

Whilst you might be a successful individual contributor, if you switch to a people wrangler, you may not perform as well. Individual contributors are different from people wranglers, even though they work together to achieve organizational goals.

If you like to code, it doesn’t mean that you would do better coding as a Project Manager in a people wrangler role. Being an individual contributor, you can effectively work on one of the module of product and make it what you want to!

An individual contributor can focus more on building and become the “maker” rather than getting bogged down in other people’s needs. Sometimes the more challenging roles are when we challenge ourselves. Individual contributors have full empowerment to set their direction, set their goals and do the magic!

“Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Traits of people wranglers and individual contributors

People wranglers or individual contributors


Advantages to being an individual contributor or people wrangler

Individual contributors are empowered to complete and execute owned projects showcasing their skills to achieve goals. Individual contributor roles always have the advantage of being able to choose projects that fit around their own interests, whilst helping others learn the same skills.

People wranglers enjoy mentoring people, and normally possess the ability to make things possible. They plan and execute operations making sure everyone in the team is happy and able to achieve their best. People wranglers cultivate a helpful and creative culture so everyone sees their workplace as a second home.

How are we building these paths in Kayako?

When we planned our new team hierarchy, the first thing we wanted was a flat structure where everyone is approachable, and can work together.

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We want every employee to feel challenged, connected with their team, and understand their importance within the organization. We want employees to start each day with passion and maintain the fire till the day ends where they can analyze their productivity. We strongly believe every employee has their own value to add to the growth of the organization.

What we did to bring this change

  • We analysed the market to understand the positions required to be a successful team
  • We prepared a growth chart to showcase the positions, levels and compensation bands
  • We generated job descriptions and success criteria for each position
  • We analysed our team members’ skill sets and their interests, and then filled up the role chart

With this change, some employees were nominated for both people wrangler and individual contributor roles. This entire exercise was based on how we utilize team skills! This also resulted in nominating some people wranglers as individual contributors. This didn’t necessarily mean people wranglers take a higher salary than an individual contributor on the same level. Having an individual contributor at same level as people wranglers implies the same compensation for both.

What can the individual contributor track look like for your company?

Individual contributors have various roles. They can develop relations with customers, coordinate with engineers to fix severe bugs, help people, and set the direction for entire team. They are their own heroes!

It is always better to have different chefs cooking and serving unique dishes, with one Head Chef ensuring everything is served in timely manner.


  • Reduce bottlenecks and empower everyone to be efficient
  • Empowerment gives better direction and leads to increased satisfaction
  • Introduce individual contributors to bring challenges in every role

We really like how Rand Fishkin (from Moz) lays it out here:

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