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Executives: Leaders or Managers?

The first thing you need to know as you begin your career as a manager is what management means. Some people feel that becoming a manager means gaining the authority to make decisions they couldn't make at a lower level.

As a result, they carry on much as they did before, only with more weight to throw around. Naturally, new managers are anxious to prove themselves as fast as possible, but they often fall flat on their faces by making poorly informed decisions. The secret is to develop solutions with people rather than feeling that you need to go it alone.

The Meaning of Management

The key requirement to succeed as a manager is the ability to make the best use of all resources at your disposal. Management is like investment except that you are trying to get the best return on a  wider range of resources than money. The biggest mistake new managers make is focusing too much on the content of their role and not enough on how to get the best out of people. Regardless of your function: finance, human resources, operations or whatever, you are likely an expert in the content of your job. In your anxiety to prove yourself as a manager, it is tempting to fall back on what you know best, the expertise you gained in previous years. This creates the impression that you are the go-to person for a wide range of answers to important questions. As a result, you set yourself up to fail because you won't get the best out of the people reporting to you. Instead of involving them in developing solutions and stretching their ability to think, you send the message that you are the person with the answers. This is very disempowering to your team.

Many managers fail to reap the full benefits of their team because they want to manage as if they were the managing partner in a professional services firm. They want to spend 80% of their time on the interesting stuff and have subordinates who are competent enough to get on with their jobs with as little attention from the manager as possible. They may delegate well enough but they say “Come and see me if you have a problem.” Of course the unspoken message is “Leave me alone otherwise.”

How Management is Changing

The image of the manager as the fount of all wisdom dies hard, but it is gradually withering away. Managers today need to operate more as facilitators, catalysts or coaches than as the top solution generator. Management has been defined as getting things done through people. In the past, this simply meant good delegation. But, today, there are two kinds of things to do: execute tasks efficiently and think creatively to solve new problems. The former can be delegated but the latter can best be achieved with good facilitation skills. This means asking questions of the form “What do you think?” Variations on this question include:

  • What do you see as the issue?
  • What options do you see for tackling it?
  • What is your preferred option?
  • What are the pros and cons of this option?

If you work in a culture where managers are strong decision makers, you will need to manage expectations if you want to use a more facilitative style. You could say to your new team that you might have the answers to a lot of problems, but you need to get the best out of them. And this means drawing as many solutions out of them as possible. You can also point to one of the best selling management books around today: Good to Great, by Jim Collins in which he found that the best CEOs had the humility to acknowledge that they did not have all the answers. To succeed, they got their best people together to brainstorm possible new strategies. Collins called them l”evel 5 leaders” because they operated as catalysts rather than as decision makers when it came to developing new directions.

Management Success Attributes

So far our discussion has focused on how to view yourself in the managerial role, moving from a focus on content to being more of a facilitator. This approach will help you empower and motivate people but you also need to recognize that every person is different and that different styles of communication and motivation are required for each of them. Regular meetings with each member of your team are essential. It is a good idea to begin each meeting by asking what has gone well since you last met before moving onto problems. This is a great way of celebrating success on a small scale but, most importantly, it is done regularly. It also sets a positive tone to your meetings. An exclusive focus on problems can create a negative climate in your team.

The next most important attribute is managing stakeholders. It is essential to see your boss and other important players as internal customers. It is common to feel you have had a good day if you don't see your boss. Regarding your boss as your most important customer encourages a different mindset. Now you should seek opportunities to meet with your boss regularly. Your aim is the same as it is with external customers – to help this person meet his or her needs. It's not a matter of asking how to do your job. You need to keep abreast of how your boss's priorities are changing and the best way to do this is to ask questions regularly about main concerns, new issues, plans and priorities. Simply showing interest is a good way to sell yourself. A common failing is to make up your own job, to decide in isolation what you should be focusing on. This is to fail to think strategically. Being strategic means placing most of your emphasis where you can gain the best return. And this must mean doing what will most please your customers.

The common strand running through these attributes is the ability to work with and through people, to be less self-centred and to focus more on helping others succeed. Keep in mind the need to manage expectations. You don't want to convey the impression that you can't make your own decisions. Rather, you need to get it across that groups make better decisions than individuals – this is a well known fact.

Published in The Canadian Manager, Winter 2009.

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