Knowing when to manage and when to lead

Knowing when to manage and when to lead

Posted on Apr 2, 2014 | Tags: , | No Comments

Knowing when to manage and when to lead

A few weeks ago, Teamworks explored the idea of  “leader vs. manager” as a false dichotomy. Our colleague Adam Schorr, a Principal at SYPartners who has reflected on this topic quite a bit, pushed us to take the thinking even further. We invited him to use this week’s blog space to do just that. Here’s Adam’s perspective.

* * *

Often, the words we use shape the way we think. The words “leader” and “manager” suggest an identity. But, in fact, those words are not really descriptions of what you are; they are simply descriptions of what you do.

Perhaps it’s time to use the words “leadership” and “management” instead. These words suggest that leading and managing are modes of behavior. They are about the way you show up in particular moments.

The change in language can enable a change in thinking: It frees you from the tiresome debate of leader vs. manager and opens up a more useful set of questions about when to apply one mode or the other, and how to refine the skill sets that belong to each.

When is management appropriate?
Management is primarily about navigating the known. It’s about achieving the best result possible given a set of well-understood rules, constraints, and resources. You should be in management mode when your team faces a familiar assignment and needs guidance on how to make the right tradeoffs.

For example, when your team is working on the launch of the next product in an existing family of products, to known customers in channels you’re familiar with. Or when your team is putting together an annual budget for work that will be largely similar to the previous year’s. These situations do not call for radical reinvention because so much is known already about what works and what doesn’t. Your contribution here is to help your team see the patterns you’ve seen so they can learn from history, and to give them sufficient context so they can optimize across all the variables.

By using established best practices and reference points to chart the way forward, you create clarity and accelerate progress.

How do you develop a management skill set?
Developing your management skill is all about learning to be brilliant at seeing patterns. Not just what can be observed on the surface, but deep patterns of cause and effect, the underlying connections and dependencies.

To do this, you need to study the market, the competition, and your own organization. Learn from what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. Zoom out to truly see the whole system. It’s about observation and practice, practice, practice.

When is leadership appropriate?
In contrast, leadership is about mastering the unknown. After all, we don’t need a leader to take us someplace we’ve already been. We crave leadership when the right path — or even the right destination — isn’t obvious.

For example, when your team is launching a new product based on first-of-its-kind technology via new channels. Or when your industry has been radically reshaped by new regulations. You have no real precedents to draw from. There are no best practices that truly apply. You’re dealing with uncharted forces. Your team is counting on you to innovate, while keeping your eye on the horizon.

When old assumptions and existing models are no longer reliable, you need to use your imagination — to conjure a vision for what the future could be. You must inspire your team to follow you on the path forward, even if you can’t be certain of how it will all play out. It’s about the bravery to take that first big leap forward and the creativity to keep figuring it out as you go.

How do you develop a leadership skill set?
While you cannot study your way to leadership, you can learn to overcome, or at least mitigate, the crippling fear of the unknown. And the best way to do this, is by putting yourself into situations where you’re facing the unknown and you have to act without the benefit of a blueprint. The more familiar you become with what it feels like to operate in the unknown, the less scary it will seem to you.

Start small. Build this skill at first in less risky situations. Determine what’s possible, and encourage the team to go just beyond. Then, ask yourself what more is possible. Eventually, let yourself articulate some truly audacious hopes and dreams. Draw out those who share your sense of possibility and get creative together.

Finding the right mix
While you may naturally find one mode more in your comfort zone, both leadership and management are vital to the success of the team, the work, and the organization. And your team likely needs you to be able to switch between the two modes. The key is learning to identify which situations call for management and which for leadership. Your job will almost always be a blend of the two, regardless of whether people call you a “leader” or a “manager.”

* * *

Looking for more provocations from Teamworks on the arts of leadership and management? Read our post The false dichotomy of “leader vs. manager”.

Want more of guest blogger Adam Schorr’s practical, battle-tested insights on what it takes to lead a team? Read Adam’s Turning the team’s good intentions into action.

Leave a Reply