Monday, March 21, 2011

Managers Vs. Leaders

Executive Summary:
If you want to get the best performance out of your team, identify who is skilled at accomplishing and driving tasks (managers) and who is skilled at setting vision and motivating people (leaders).  Leverage their respective skills to enable your team to find its fullest capability.  Assess yourself and determine in which direction you most want to grow.

The Rest of the Story:
In our offices we have a wide variety of titles for team leads, project managers, managers, directors, chief engineers, and facilitators.  We typically use titles to vaguely identify boundaries of responsibility.  I invite you to take some time this week, ignore titles, and try to identify the people you work with who are skilled managers and those who are natural or skilled leaders.  Once you have your assessment done, take some time and begin developing a plan for how you might leverage the personalities to create a strong balance of leadership and management within your team.  Then I invite you to go a step further and do a self-assessment.  Determine if you are more manager or more leader, and which skills you most need to improve right now.  If you do this, you can then reflect on the personalities you already assessed and look for ways you can learn from them.  If you are in a position of responsibility for personnel, look for those who might benefit from also learning from leaders and managers and establish opportunities for that learning to take place.

Let me invest a few words explaining my own perspective of managers and leaders.  Then we can talk about how we can use the two skill sets to benefit our teams.

In my definition, management is about tasks and resources.  Good managers are people who are good at keeping track of what’s going on, what isn’t happening, who is doing what, and planning ahead to make sure that everything that needs to get done will get done and will have the resources needed.  If it’s not obvious who your skilled managers are, one way to identify them is to look for the individuals others go to for advice about their projects or how to manage time or get things done.  Managers are usually on time with their deliverables, and are generally less stressed about getting them done.  Often, though not always, skilled managers have clean desks (part of being organized).

In my definition, leaders are about people.  Good leaders know how to motivate people, get team members focused on a vision or goal, and lead the charge toward that goal.  There are a wide variety of leadership styles, so don’t let style interfere with your assessment.  Instead, look for those that you and others turn to when they need someone to listen, or need advice about how to deal with problems involving personalities.  Look for the one who speaks up in a meeting and suddenly has the entire group rallied to his proposal.  Look for those who everyone invites to lunch.  Leadership can be relative, and in my experience, every team I have ever reflected upon has had a leader.  I suspect it must be a component of human nature to intuitively assume a leader for any group environment.  Most times, the rest of the team determines that leader, not necessarily by position or responsibility.  However, more than one leader personality in a group works, as long as they are cooperative and not in conflict and, ultimately, only one can be "in charge."

Here’s the important paradigm breaker that we must recognize when doing our search for leaders and managers.  The ones with leadership titles or responsibilities may not be the strongest leaders.  Likewise, those called managers, may not be very good managers, but might be good leaders.  I’ll give you an example.  Years ago, I was an engineer on a large design and development team.  The project manager for our team was a train wreck as far as organization and keeping track of details, and tasks.  But, he was a strong leader who kept his cool, and kept the team calm and focused when the pressure rose.  The lead engineer for the project was a masterful tracker of details, tasks, risks, and action items.  He was also a very good engineer, but not the first one on the list of people with whom you would invite to a high-stress board meeting.  The project team worked very well, the design was well engineered, and deliverables were generally on time and well executed.  Their titles might have been reversed, but the need for leadership and the need for management were satisfied and that is exactly the balance we should all seek for every team we assemble or to which we are assigned.

Take a look at your own team.  Look at the team that reports to you, if you have one.  Look at the team of which you are a part.  Who are the leaders?  Who are the managers?  Which one is the guy in charge?  Which skill set do you exhibit most?  Very few of us are skilled at both. 

It’s fine if the one in charge is more manager than leader.  It’s also fine if one in charge is more leader like.  The trick is to make sure that your team has both bases covered in some way.  Obviously, some efforts might require more leadership and less management, and vice versa.  If you can identify it up front and chose your leader appropriately, the team will be better set to succeed.  I was a manager of an engineering team and I marveled at one of my peer managers for his ability to always, at any given moment, know exactly who was working on what, and the status of each project his engineers worked to the smallest detail.  I studied him, because his management skills seemed better than mine.  Interestingly, within a few months, our manager moved some of the engineers around and I ended up with several of my peer's.  I asked my manager what the reason was and he said that he felt my new engineers would work and grow better under someone with more leadership traits.  Yes, this was my wake-up moment to the very lesson I’m writing about.  I still studied my peer and adopted some of his habits, and left some on the table.

As we move up the organizational chart, it seems like the personalities tend to be mostly manager, or mostly leader.  I’ve not observed many organizations where the top of the chart is balanced between the two.  However, I must concede that we should expect that the personalities at the top should be somewhat skilled in both sets.  Still, I think that there is frequently a bias, and I believe it tends in the same direction as the top leader.  If the personality on top is more manger like and naturally tends to focus on achieving goals, executing tasks, meeting milestones, and reporting metrics, those around him or her will be there because they are likewise skilled and inclined.  The same goes for leadership bias as well.  This can be an important cultural “aha” if you wish to continue moving up, because it will help you know how to hone your own skills.  At the same time, consider the opportunities of being well balanced or being different.  The problem is, an organization that is very heavily biased toward management of resources and tasks can be an unpleasant place to work.  Likewise, a place that is heavily focused on leadership might be a great environment, but the things that make the business competitive and efficient might need some more attention.  A balance is important.

Is your own team balanced?  Are the teams reporting to you balanced?  If you look closely at the teams that are very effective, I believe you will find a strong paring of leadership and management.  Likewise, those teams that just can’t seem to hold it together will be missing one or both elements.  If you are the one in charge of an organization or team, did you naturally team up with someone on your team to help cover your own weak side?  Did you do it deliberately?  Do you need to?  Don’t be bashful.  If you need that other expertise to complement your own, or need to adjust a team to create a better balance, do it.  There should be nothing embarrassing about plainly stating why either.  It’s such a simple thing, but we don’t always consider it when we build teams.  We think of the functional skills needed, and we try to pick a good bet for the one in charge, but we don’t always deliberately assess whether we have both management and leadership skills on the team and whether those personalities will work together as a pair.  Take some time to fix this, and your teams’ performance will improve.  Make a habit out of it, and you will be a better builder of teams for the rest of your career, and more successful yourself too.

Stay wise, friends.

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