Embrace the High-Level Individual Contributor: How to Hire for This Unconventional Role

I’m SparkToro’s VP Marketing and here’s how I spent a recent afternoon: I sifted through our Google Analytics dashboard. I was looking for our most popular pages and copying them into a spreadsheet so that we can keep track of what needs to be updated for the public launch of SparkToro V2. I included the title of the page, link, and amount of pageviews each got over the past month. This took ~30 minutes.

Was it glamorous? Cripes, no. But was it fun? Absolutely not. Well, did I at least use the opportunity to listen to my Spotify Discover Weekly while I worked? Still no, because I didn’t even think of doing that until after.

That’s the thing about a role like mine. It seems glamorous to work with a marketing legend (Rand or Casey, depending on your perspective :-)) and to be able to hit the speaking circuit (anyone going to SaaStock?), but mostly, my job is to roll up my sleeves and get stuff done.

The email newsletter that I bragged has a 42% open rate? I spend ~2 hours writing and editing it myself. The Office Hours series that gets several hundred signups? I manually set it up each time in Goldcast. And those customer support emails we promise to reply to within two days? Yup, the response really does come from the keyboards of Rand, Casey, or myself.

So when I say that “I wish more companies hired people like me,” what I’m really saying is that I wish there were more opportunities for high-level individual contributors similar to my role here at SparkToro. Now, tweeting that without diving deeper doesn’t actually open up doors for anybody. It’s just putting out wishes into the world. What follows is my attempt to explain the realities of my role, how to know if it’s the right type of role for you (the employee), how to hire for my role (if you’re an employer), and how to gauge success in an unconventional role like mine.

For those who are wondering about our impromptu day drinking, I made us bee’s knees and gold rushes.

I’m actually a “marketing architect.” But what is that?

This was the original title I made up for myself when I first joined SparkToro. I was inspired by the title of “software architect,” a technical role for high-level, individual contributors on software engineering teams. A high-level IC has deep expertise, significant responsibilities, and compensation commensurate with upper management even though they don’t manage people — these types of roles are far more common on the product and engineering side of tech businesses. I was coming into SparkToro with over a decade of professional experience, and since I wasn’t managing anybody at our humble startup of three, “Marketing Architect” felt appropriate. (Plus, as someone who has often thumbed her nose at convention, it felt irreverent yet professional. See below LinkedIn screenshot of my recent honors and awards.)

Let it be known I’m not actually that good at SEO. I don’t know if y’all should trust these lists.

Later on, I asked for a title change to VP Marketing when I worried the unconventional title wasn’t doing me any favors when it came to pursuing speaking engagements. (When I requested this, Casey didn’t reply to my email and Rand said I can have any title I want, and I love them both for this.)

So what’s my job, really? It’s a mix of marketing, customer support, and product. In that order, and mostly marketing. Any product work I do is essentially product marketing. (You know that in-app welcome tour you go through when you make a SparkToro account? I wrote it with Ramli John’s help, but Casey coded it in.) On the strategic front, I’m responsible for the marketing strategy for SparkToro V2 (although, well, so are Rand and Casey), and I set the vision, strategy, and tactics for our annual SparkTogether summit. In fact, SparkTogether probably best exemplifies my strategic and tactical work. I’m fully capable of setting a vision for a profitable program. But I also get in the weeds to send all the promo emails, upload the speakers’ slides, and make sure everyone does a tech check in advance of the event.

I don’t manage a team, but ultimately, since I am the marketing team, I manage myself. Here’s what that means and doesn’t mean:

I make my own deadlines… but this doesn’t mean I close my eyes and pick random dates on the calendar. I decided our email newsletter goes out every other Thursday, which means it must get done by every other Wednesday.

I manage my workflow… but I don’t get final say for key launches. It’s not up to me when SparkToro V2 launches (nor should it be). We launch it when Casey flips the switch… when it’s ready. We’re shooting for a date in April, which means I need to manage and execute the marketing deliverables before that date.

I don’t consider myself “above” any task… but I’m willing to delegate when needed. I actually do like doing the work. For as much as I joke around about procrastinating, there are few things I love more than a completed blog post in which I’ve carefully articulated useful thoughts. I don’t mind organizing customer testimonials, or making a graphic in Canva to promote our next Office Hours. I don’t complain; I get it done. Same time, if there’s something I need Rand to do (like, er, review this blog post before I publish it), I ask him and I give him a soft deadline.

I don’t run meetings nor do I report weekly updates to my colleagues… but we all stay in touch, we ask each other questions as needed, and when Rand sends occasional updates to our investors, I pull up marketing metrics/wins/losses that he can share. If we’re in a busy season, I might over-communicate with Rand and Casey to say, “Hey, remember that thing we talked about a few weeks ago? Don’t worry, I’m on it!”

Neither Rand nor Casey ask for this, but I think it’s nice. If nothing else, it helps me stay organized and on-task.

All this to say, while I enjoy immense autonomy in my role — I spent most of my last Friday hanging out with my baby, watching “Bluey,” and going for a long walk — Rand and Casey don’t need to worry about whether I’m actually doing my job. On any given day, I might be entirely unproductive. But in one week, I’ll speak on a podcast, present to 1,300 people in the MarketingProfs community, write 3 personalized email sequences to onboard new users, write and send the newsletter, and draft the following’ week’s blog post.

How do you know if being a high-level IC is for you?

At this point, I honestly hope I’ve turned off a number of you, and inspired a number of you. This high-level IC role is not for you if you like managing people, if you prefer strategy over tactics, or if, at the end of the day, sitting down to clack out your thoughts in a 2,000-word blog post sounds like an absolute nightmare.

And that’s perfectly fine.

How did I know it was right for me? Years back, I was plotting out the next steps of my career with an old boss. She was on her way out at the company, and we were in one of our last one-on-ones. A politically-savvy executive with no reason to hold her cards to her chest, she finally asked me: “Do you like managing people?”

I was burnt out and pregnant. Nothing sounded more appealing than sitting in a dark room, processing tasks, then clocking out for the day. I realized I only “wanted” to eventually become a CMO because as a smart, ambitious person, that’s what I was supposed to want. She offered, “I think you might really like to be a high-level, individual contributor.”

Asked to elaborate on what that would look like for a content marketer like me, she explained: “You could pursue one of two paths. In one, you broaden the scope of your experience and work your way to becoming a VP of Marketing. In the other, you deepen your skills and eventually become a VP of Content.”

“Think about it.”

That was six years ago and I haven’t stopped thinking about it. Because the truth is, I actually like doing the work. If, at the end of the day, “the work” is more exciting to you than anything else, maybe you’re a high-level IC at heart too.

How do you hire and manage a high-level IC?

While I can’t give a one-size-fits-all job description, I think I can offer you some one-size-fits-most rules.

First off, look for the doers. People whose resumes show their ability to get in the weeds. Beware of any resume optimized for the word “strategy.” (Or, maybe, beware of that in all cases; people who play up their strategic chops are typically the ones trying to appear more senior than they are.)

Your job description should make it clear that:

The person will be compensated well. Hey, you’re looking for the A+ tactician, right? While you can argue they shouldn’t get paid as much as the CMO who oversees the whole marketing team, you’ve got to budget for the fact that you’re hiring for an upper management position, someone more experienced and more competent than a manager-level worker.

This isn’t a people management role. This will turn off some people, which is great. More time saved for both of you. In a conventional corporate environment, you’d bury this aspect of the role. But you’re not conventional, right?! Put this front and center, and the right types of people will apply.

There won’t be day-to-day oversight, but the person will be accountable. Remember: this is a grown adult you’re hiring. You don’t need to have them join a daily standup, or have them update a spreadsheet every time they complete a task. A common understanding for what accountability looks like is key. Show that you care about this, but consider leaving this open-ended enough where the person you hire ultimately gets to decide on this.

And on that note of open-endedness, consider letting them decide on their title and the nitty gritty of their day-to-day responsibilities. You can provide guidance on this without being too specific. As a safe default, you can list the role as a “Head of [skill]” while also elaborating that the person can make up their own title within reason. (Hardy har har, jokesters, you’re not going to get a fake “President” title.) You can also describe their day-to-day responsibilities on a higher level. Say you want to hire someone to launch and host a video series. Well… does it have to be a video series? Maybe the right fit is a podcaster who’s happy to do the hosting and editing themselves. Or maybe it’s a YouTube strategist who likes to geek out in Adobe Premiere Pro.

Set a vague vision for what you hope this person achieves, let the right candidate fill in the details, and then trust them. The wrong hire will want more direction or scoff at the lofty hopes. The right hire will want to roll up their sleeves.

What does success look like in this unconventional role?

Ideally, you don’t manage the day-to-day of a high-level IC at all. Senior leaders in any organization are supposed to be self-motivated and productive without oversight. This role is no exception. What’s most unusual is that an “architect” style role (whatever title you choose to give) both defines their goals and accomplishes them.

But goals are not success; that’s the tricky thing. Defining success needs to come from leadership. The IC can cross off all their to-do’s and launch that pie-in-the-sky project you were excited about, but if you’re not happy with the long-term results, there’s a good chance that’s your fault.

There are obvious, their-fault-not-yours scenarios: You have them work on a project and set their own deadlines, then they have nothing to show for it. You let them set their own hours, then they appear to never be online. You try to get them to hop on a call, then they dodge all your emails.

But if they’ve been working their butt off on that new video show, it launched, they’re taking feedback and reiterating, and they’re publishing regularly — and you’re still unhappy, you have to be honest with yourself about whether the success cases you defined had alignment with the IC’s work.

At SparkToro, we obviously care about things like more customers and happy customers. But this doesn’t mean Rand and Casey are refreshing our LinkedIn page every week, charting our follower growth. They’re paying attention to the bigger picture. They’re considering annual recurring revenue (ARR), trends in our industry, product features that might resonate vs. those that are too expensive or challenging to build, the conversations they’re having with marketers in the field. They have an awareness of the types of projects I’m working on and they’re also aware I have a young family who needs me. They’re not thinking, “Where is Amanda the marketer and how is she bringing in more money today?” They’re thinking, “How is Amanda the fully formed human being doing, can we do anything to unblock her progress, and how can we be supportive to her while trusting she’ll holler for help?”

Let the high-level IC role reveal itself to you

What amuses me about all this is realizing that on my quest for that narrowly-focused, high-level IC role, I ended up finding a mix of the two. While it’s my content chops that are my main skill set, I’m ultimately a marketing generalist here. I don’t manage people, but I do help manage some of the agencies and consultants that we engage.

It’s not a perfectly clear cut role, and that’s what I love about it most. It’s because Rand and Casey didn’t actually mean to hire me. I pitched them and I created my own role. And they allow me to keep redefining it.

It’s all because they didn’t set out to fit one, specific need. They were open-minded enough for me to reveal this role to them, and they were wise enough to guide the path. SparkToro’s grown remarkably in customers, revenue, featureset, reputation, and owned audience since I joined. Those are what matter to all three of us.

If your company (or your career) align with the idea of largely-unsupervised, high-level talent that works independently toward self-defined goals, this gig might be for you. 😉