Individual Contributors, Take Note: Women in Tech Leadership Share their Advice for Climbing the Career Ladder

For individual contributors ready to move into a managerial role, taking the next step can be daunting. Built In Colorado heard from 12 local women about how to prepare for and succeed in leadership opportunities.
Written by Brigid Hogan
November 9, 2022Updated: February 1, 2024

The most important promotion in a woman’s career is also the hardest to achieve.

“There is no ambition gap,” BCG and Heidrick & Struggles reported last year. “Roughly the same percentage of women and men were trying for a promotion.”

But according to research from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, only 52 women are promoted out of individual contributor positions to tech management roles for every 100 men promoted, a phenomenon coined as “the broken rung” on the ladder of advancement.

At companies where women are elevated to leadership roles, McKinsey’s research shows marked financial outperformance. “The most gender-diverse companies are 48 percent more likely to outperform the least gender-diverse companies,” the consulting firm reported.

 

By the numbers

According to BCG and Heidrick & Struggles, the crucial leap isn’t moving into the C-Suite or being appointed to a board, but the jump from being an individual contributor to a management position. Women surveyed overwhelmingly cited early promotions as the most important to their careers, with 44 percent noting their first move into management and 36 noting their second promotion. Alternatively, 44 percent of men believed their third or later promotion was the most important to their careers.

 

Women in tech leadership positions here in Colorado cite mentorship, actively seeking opportunities and building strong relationships with peers and leaders both within and beyond their direct teams as crucial to professional advancement throughout their careers.

The growth process isn’t always straightforward or simple, but many respondents highlighted the importance of finding opportunities to thrive amidst uncertainty.

For Regina Madigan, now vice president of finance at AMP, such an opportunity materialized when her Fortune 500 employer was acquired by its primary competitor. “We all sat across from people who did exactly the same jobs as us, like looking in the mirror, and we recognized only half of us would make it through the acquisition and subsequent integration,” she said.

Madigan took the risk of proactively raising her hand for complex integration leadership opportunities, distinguishing herself in the eyes of her new leadership. 

“You have to be on the field to be noticed, so always try to find a way to contribute using your own unique skills,” Madigan said.

Built In Colorado sat down with Madigan and 11 additional local women in leadership roles to hear about their experiences overcoming “the broken rung” and what advice they offer the women climbing the career ladder with them.

 

Anjana Manian
Senior Engineering Manager • Checkr

Checkr offers modern and compliant background check services to businesses of any size.

 

What should individual contributors be doing to prepare for a management role?

As an IC, you probably love designing systems, writing code and building products. Moving into a management role requires you to trade off some of the things you love doing to help others achieve their goals. Trust me, in time, you will realize that this is a lot of fun and personally rewarding.

The best way to prepare for a management role is to observe good leaders in your organization. Observe how they articulate their vision, communicate ideas, build trust and motivate employees. Watch how good managers build on their strengths just as easily as they embrace their limitations.

Good leaders influence others through the power of their knowledge and not just through their position. Even as an IC, you can hone your skills of persuasion and influence others using your knowledge, experience and communication skills. Being a good communicator means articulating the core idea in a way that sticks and stays. Cultivating your communication skills will set you up for success in any role, especially a management role. 

The best way to prepare for a management role is to observe good leaders in your organization.”

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at Checkr.

There isn’t a single moment or experience that accelerated my career. A series of moments got me to where I am today and helped me stand out as a leader. 

Some of those moments are well planned, while others happened ad-hoc. Transitioning from an IC to a management role was somewhat of an unplanned one. I was presented with an opportunity to lead a critical project spanning multiple teams and geographies. Although I had no prior experience managing people, I seized the moment and took up the challenge. Later in my career, being an entrepreneur threw new challenges at me every day and forced me to venture out of my comfort zone. I have a better understanding of my abilities and enjoy taking on new responsibilities and dealing with unknown challenges. I have enjoyed every bit of being a people manager since I started down this path, and this has kept me motivated to excel in what I do.
 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Active listening. Gathering information from different sources and understanding business needs and people’s motivations help make good decisions as a manager.

A key part of a manager’s job is planning and allocating resources. Building intuition about risks and balancing them against your team’s strengths helps plan for success. To build high-performing teams, you will have to build relationships and trust with your team members and create a positive environment for each individual on your team to thrive. Beyond just listening, a people manager needs to recognize behavioral cues and react in a way that reinforces positivity and keeps the team motivated and productive. Over the years, I have experienced highs and lows with my team. The one thing that keeps a team together is fostering a strong sense of empathy. Active listening also includes providing timely and meaningful feedback to your team members and keeping your business partners and management chain updated. 

 

 

Clara Kuo
Principal UX Researcher • Vivian Health

Vivian Health connects healthcare professionals to job opportunities. 

 

What should individual contributors be doing to prepare for a management role?

When you’re just starting out, make a point of regularly conducting informational interviews with people of different job titles that interest you, even if you don’t end up taking positions in those other job titles. Surrounding yourself with diverse people will help you pivot your career path as an individual contributor when you’re ready. When moving into a management position later on, you’ll be able to use this network knowledge to help you relate to different team members working in different functions.

Surrounding yourself with diverse people will help you pivot your career path as an individual contributor when you’re ready.”

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at Vivian Health.

If you spend some time thinking about what you value and what your strengths are as a unique individual, you’ll be more immune to imposter syndrome. Our society has become so outward facing with social media that it’s easy to wonder what others “like” about us. 

My internal value compass keeps me centered, so I can show up at work in an authentic way. What’s more, I now have a network of like-minded people outside of my company that work as a sounding board for different ideas and to get unstuck for different challenges. 
 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Whether you hate or love it, public speaking is the number one skill that is needed to be able to present your ideas to a diverse audience. Since the beginning of time, humans have always told stories, and so we are attracted to clear messages from leadership. If you can deliver a clear message effectively in a public setting that makes you visible, it will help to inspire and orient your team to your chosen direction and strategy.

 

 

AIR Communities staff builds a bike
AIR Communities

 

Sarah McCormac
Senior Director of Marketing • AIR Communities

AIR Communities owns and operates rental communities in 20 U.S. markets.

 

What should individual contributors be doing to prepare for a management role?

According to organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant, “You are not a high performer if you don’t make other people better. Full stop.” Management is a service role, and servant leadership is different from traditional leadership. It’s no longer just about your personal accomplishments, but those of your team. Gain experience and develop a track record of inspiring and lifting others up with you.

Gain experience and develop a track record of inspiring and lifting others up with you.”

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at AIR Communities.

Many moments over time help one stand out as a true leader. I believe my personal success is built on an inner fire for finding a “pathway to yes,” ability to be nimble and never resting on the status quo.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Hone in on your ability to actively listen to your colleagues, both senior leaders and individual contributors. What motivates them? What are their pain points? What will help them sleep better at night? Learn what’s important to them and find a way to be integral to their success.

 


 

Shannon Reidy-Nichols
VP, Sales • SumUp

SumUp offers payment hardware, banking solutions, invoicing and more to businesses of any size.

 

What should individual contributors be doing to prepare for a management role?

I believe strongly in attaching your wagon to the right mentor. It’s important to find someone who can demonstrate and teach you what it is to be in a management role. Management is really about coaching. As a manager, you’re developing other people all the time, from first-timers to seasoned veterans. Specifically in a sales organization, it’s not just about looking at result trends, teaching the sales process and quickly onboarding new reps; it’s about identifying their strengths and opportunities and consistently investing in development plans. You also have to create inclusive cultures to ensure everyone on the team feels valued and that everyone feels their voice is important.

It’s also important to lead from the front. You need to cultivate “followership,” and that comes from demonstrating professionalism, showing up on time, engaging in meetings, joining the culture and ultimately driving results. If you know you want to step into a management role, proactively search for opportunities where you can mentor others and inspire them. If you see someone who’s struggling, be that first person to pick up the phone and see if you can help. Insert yourself and be proactive!

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader.

I took the initiative to take initiative. For example, in a previous role I presented my process to my manager, which she then asked me to share with another senior leader at the company. That in turn ignited a strategy that later helped me get a promotion. The reality is, numbers don’t always equal a management role. Instead, management roles come from building on existing opportunities and thinking outside the box.

Agility isn’t just about moving fast, it’s about how you can scale speed and complexity while still being open to change.”

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

People often talk about agility — but agility isn’t just about moving fast, it’s about how you can scale speed and complexity while still being open to change. Being agile is all about believing in your values, learning from people who don’t look like or sound like you, and being deliberate and intentional with your decisions. And don’t forget to ask a ton of questions along the way! Having an evolving lens is a huge part of being an agile leader.

 

 

Fivetran team members at a baseball game
Fivetran

 

Danielle McConville
Director of Sales Acceleration • Fivetran

Fivetran accelerates analytic and operational efficiency and fuels business growth through data integration.

 

What should individual contributors be doing to prepare for a management role?

There are so many things an individual contributor can do before moving into management that will support their journey. The first thing is to understand that leadership is exactly that; a journey. It all starts with finding an opportunity to lead no matter which seat you have at the table, so you really can start now.

Secondly, remember that you are not alone. Activate your network with leaders and managers you admire across the business — start building those relationships internally now for the future. Your relationships with decision-makers will provide the platform for your mobility into new roles. The majority of decisions made about your career are done when you aren’t in the room, so make time to invest in your potential future stakeholders and leadership team.

Third, identify your core leadership values and how you want to be seen as a leader, making sure they are tied to your own core values. This preparation will ensure you show up with authenticity for your team as you build your trust and execute on the company goals over time. 

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader.

A few years ago, one of my prior companies went through a transformational change to the business. I focused on supporting my existing team while embracing new colleagues, product, process and adapting quickly. By working through the change curve with my team, we were able to pull together and find strength in the chaos to continue to deliver high performance. This stood out globally to the organization and resulted in many of our wins translating into global playbooks for the organization, which accelerated my career beyond front line manager to business leadership and saw me secure a seat at the regional leadership level.

 

Tyler Rockefeller
Sales Development Manager • Fivetran

My acceleration moment was taking initiative to help develop and improve the onboarding process. Being an IC prior to moving into management, I got experience doing the role and identifying where there were gaps or outdated materials pertaining to the onboarding process. It really helped to speed up ICs ramping period and ensured that new hires were given the most up-to-date and relevant information to help them succeed, especially in their first 30 and 60 days.

Cultivating the ability to learn will help you adapt and grow your career as you move through your leadership journey.”

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

McConville: Learning is both a skill and a mindset, and cultivating the ability to learn will help you adapt and grow your career as you move through your leadership journey. You can find new ways of working, refine your leadership skills and learn to adapt to new challenges. 

Rockefeller: Empathy is number one. Empathy is truly having the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. This is crucial no matter the industry or level of management you work in. Point blank, moving into leadership means that you are no longer solely responsible for your own success, which often ends up taking a back seat, because you are now responsible for the success of others. Being able to put your feelings and beliefs aside, and truly being able to put yourself in others' shoes is so important. 

 

 

AMP Robotics employees work on an assembly machine
AMP

 

Regina Madigan
VP of Finance • AMP

AMP is modernizing recycling through artificial intelligence, robotics and infrastructure.

 

What should individual contributors be doing to prepare for a management role?

Every day, there are opportunities to lead the people around you, even if you don’t have direct reports. Build your book of experiences, take the hard assignments to challenge yourself and most importantly, speak up and lead the people around you by setting the example of behavior you’d like to see modeled. All of these steps will position you for success when that management role comes around.

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader.

At one point, the Fortune 500 company I worked for was acquired by its biggest competitor. We all sat across from people who did exactly the same jobs as us, like looking in the mirror, and we recognized only half of us would make it through the acquisition and subsequent integration. I decided if I was going to go through such a stressful situation, I’d do my best to maximize the experience. I volunteered to lead multiple integration workstreams, which landed me on the radar of the recently-appointed CFO, and I was able to define the job I wanted in the newly combined company. You have to be on the field to be noticed, so always try to find a way to contribute using your own unique skills.

What got you to where you are won’t get you to the next place.”

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Remember that what got you to where you are won’t get you to the next place. People management is the biggest learning curve when moving into a management position, so hone your people skills in any way possible. When you’re working on a team project, really listen to the people around you. What motivates them to do their best work? Notice their strengths and leverage them to benefit the project, and if there are blind spots, be gentle in calling their attention to the issue and influencing them in a different direction. Knowing how to do this as a manager is key to gaining the trust of your team and getting the best possible performance.

 

 

Fluid Truck's headquarters team
Fluid Truck

 

Jennifer Carlucci
Backend Engineering Manager • Fluid Truck

Fluid Truck is an on-demand commercial vehicle rental platform.

 

What should individual contributors be doing to prepare for a management role?

It helps to have a wide variety of experiences — by working on more teams and with more products, you’ll gain a better understanding of different leadership and work styles. It’ll also help you focus more on the bigger picture versus focusing on one area. You’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t.

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader at Fluid Truck.

There was recently a project that came in with a tight deadline right before I was about to leave on vacation. Part of me wanted to reschedule my vacation to make sure I could manage the project and make sure we hit the deadline. But I didn’t. Instead, I brought in a subset of my team, caught them up on the requirements, did a brief bit of legwork to make sure they were set up for success and took off on my vacation. 

I fully trusted my team to figure out what needed to get done, get it prioritized and work together to release a product they could be proud of despite the tight timeline. They were able to achieve the deadline with a few days to spare and still talk about what a positive, albeit crazy, experience that was for them. They got some amazing exposure and a chance to try leading a project. As a manager, I’m not looking to stand out or accelerate my own career — I’m trying to do that for my employees.

I’m not looking to stand out or accelerate my own career — I’m trying to do that for my employees.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Trusting others and working hard so that they trust you. When they trust you, you can make sure they have what they need to be successful. When you trust them, you empower them to be the best they can be.

 

 

Anna Zummer
Manager Technical Support • LogRhythm

LogRhythm combines a security operations platform, technology partnerships and advisory services to support security operations teams.

 

What should individual contributors be doing to prepare for a management role?

Individual contributors should gain closeness to and become involved in what leadership is working on and what is driving their process changes. You can also sign up to be a part of or lead new programs or projects, look for opportunities to contribute to the team using skills obtained that aren’t typical in your current role or are skills leadership are not yet aware of. All of this fits into stepping up to take on further duties or responsibilities to stand out.

Become involved in what leadership is working on and what is driving their process changes.”

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader.

Historically, I have always tried to get myself involved in any additional projects possible to gain further knowledge and experience. One stand-out moment was signing up to pilot a new process with a small group and lead newer employees through the new program. This allowed me to not only show my skills with process creation and documentation but allowed for me to flex my leadership skills within my position before applying for a management position.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Relationship building. Building a foundation of trust and connectedness will allow you to stand out as a natural leader and be the go-to when people need assistance.

 

 

The simPro Software Group team
simPro Software Group

 

Natasha Anich
Global Vice President of Product Marketing • Simpro Group

simPRO Software Group provides business management software for the trades and services industry and now offers employees a four-day hybrid workweek through their Flex4 model.

 

What should individual contributors be doing during their career to prepare for a management role?

One of the greatest things you can do at any level in your career journey is invest in your personal growth. Learn about your own leadership and personality traits as well as those of the people around you. Put what you discover into action and cultivate great working relationships.

Think about what type of leader you want to become. You don’t need to be a manager of people to model that behavior — take steps now and practice being the leader you want to be. Do this through your interactions with others, the relationships you build and your involvement while working on projects.

 Find a mentor. Mentors are a great sounding board, can help guide you and be your cheerleader when you need encouragement. Look for a mentor who you can learn from and who challenges your thinking. 

 Learn how to influence for good. Your goal as a leader is to bring people on the journey with you, no matter how long, hard or easy the journey may be. Your skill as a manager is to build a team that will work together, so being able to get people on the same page and working towards a common goal is key.

Invest in your personal growth.”

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader.

It’s hard to pinpoint a time in my career when I had rapid acceleration. My career developed over time through a series of moments that demonstrated continuous reliability and the ability to face challenges head on, proving myself as the person that carried the team or project on a journey and achieved the outcomes needed. I built a reputation as the manager who could get the impossible done, and that is what allowed me to step from role to role and project to project to where I am today.

In a practical sense, keep a running list and add to it each time you take on any kind of leadership role. You can reference this list when advocating for yourself as a leader. 


 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

The ability to listen. You need to accept that you don’t know everything. The more you listen to others, the more likely you are to learn something new that will help you, help others and foster great relationships along the way. 

 

 

Nomad's customer service team
Nomad


 

Katie Corder-Paul
Head of Customer Experience • Nomad

Nomad supports owners in the long-term rental community by guaranteeing rent, finding great tenants and reducing risks and costs for owners.

 

What should individual contributors be doing  to prepare for a management role?

Be curious and say yes to things that make you uncomfortable. One of the most powerful skills an aspiring manager can develop is curiosity. The more you learn about how and why a team or organization does what they do, the more you’re able to bring your unique perspective to the table and thrive in that environment. Getting uncomfortable is also a great way to prepare to be a manager. Scared to give your co-worker feedback? Lean into that, read about it and get curious. Then do that thing you’re scared to do. If your boss asks, “Who wants to present this to the leadership team?” It's you. Even if that is scary, say yes, get uncomfortable and grow.

If your boss asks, ‘Who wants to present this to the leadership team?’ It’s you.”

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader.

A pivotal moment in my career that I think set me on the fast path to leadership was working with a team toward an audacious goal. We had a goal that no one had ever hit before and we had no signs that we were going to be able to do it. But we were committed to hitting the goal. I was the top performer on the team, and I shifted my focus from being number one to helping the whole team hit the goal. I became a player-coach. Their success became my success. At the end of the quarter our team was unstoppable. We hit goal after goal after goal. When I just focused on how to make everyone around me the most successful in the way that worked for them, my success just came. 

I have carried that philosophy with me the rest of my career: empower, lift up and support the people around you to perform the best they can and you will achieve so much.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Active listening. When we partner actively listening with care about what is being shared, we get a magical leader. When we are able to truly listen to people, understand their needs, what motivates them, what makes them feel strong, what makes them feel weak and everything that makes them tick, we are able to support people to work on their strengths. Coach people in the areas that they need and support them in their growth — goodness follows. Many leaders are also decision makers in their organization, and active listening is essential there as well. When you are a leader making decisions that represent the voice of your team, you are obligated to know what your team needs and fiercely advocate for them with a lens to what that means for the business. You have to be curious, ask the right questions and actively listen to the answers.

 

 

Jen Adler
Brand Director • TextUs

TextUs is a real-time text messaging platform to support how businesses communicate with their prospects, staff, and customers.

 

What should individual contributors be doing to prepare for a management role?

First, I would suggest really honing in on your skill set and perfecting it. To manage and lead means you have to be a subject matter expert in that area, so practicing and ensuring that you are the expert will build confidence in what you manage and lead later. Next, start to lead projects, no matter how small they are. You will start building up your trust and responsibilities, thus proving that you can execute and lead tasks both large and small. Most importantly, you’ll naturally begin developing a more strategic way of thinking that you need in management. Lastly, speak up in meetings when possible. Advocating for yourself and your team is a huge part of management, so getting more comfortable and involved in the larger discussions when they happen will set you up for success down the line.

Lead projects, no matter how small they are.”

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader.

Seeing an open gap and treating that open gap as an opportunity helped push my career forward. After being with a company for about eight months, I was able to get my bearings and really understand what they were aiming for, strategically, in the next year. I identified a possible opportunity where no previous bandwidth had been spent due to resource constraints. I came up with a pitch, set up a meeting with stakeholders and pitched the idea along with a timeline and resource needs for the necessary buy-in. After successfully completing the project and leading a team from beginning to end with results, I was able to sit down with leadership and discuss a permanent move into a role that was focused on executing projects like these.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Empathy. A huge part of managing people and projects is being able to put yourself in another team member’s shoes to ensure that you are understanding their motivations, hesitations and issues as they arise. The more you can understand their core values, the easier it is to know how you can help move them forward in their role that works for both the team’s needs and their career development. It also goes hand-in-hand with listening to them and making sure they feel valued and heard by you to garner a healthy relationship of open communication and trust.

 

 

Libby Stephens
VP, Client Services • Techint Labs

Techint Labs is a full-service marketing agency focused on brand acceleration.

 

What should individual contributors be doing to prepare for a management role?

First and foremost, let your goals be known! Don’t just assume your current manager or leadership team understands your desired role or career path. This way, you have open dialogue and a communication channel for feedback, development and honest conversation. 

Second, look for opportunities to demonstrate your leadership abilities in formal and informal ways. Step up to the plate to prove you have what it takes to lead a team and work across different parties. Managers and leaders shouldn’t wait to be given specific direction — they analyze the situation, propose productive solutions based on the challenge, and develop a plan and assemble a team to make it happen.

Let your goals be known!”

 

Share a moment in which you did something that accelerated your career and helped you stand out as a leader.

Although not a specific moment, the conscious shift in focus and mindset from “my role” to “our business” was instrumental in assuming a productive leadership perspective and role. As a leader and manager, your responsibility is to elevate the entire company — not just your role, your day-to-day or your individual team’s focus. Opening the aperture to evaluate and act on company-wide goals allowed me to position myself as a leader versus an individual contributor.

 

What is the number one skill a person should cultivate if they’d like to move into management?

Perspective and prioritization. In a management role, it can feel like there are often new and competing priorities that threaten to upend your day or disrupt best-laid plans. Being able to evaluate tasks, projects and initiatives with perspective will allow you to take control and keep the focus on the big picture, while staying flexible and delegating as needed to support the company’s goals. Just know that your day to day is never predictable — plan to re-plan and embrace every day’s challenges.

 

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