Transitioning from manager to leader

Carlo Atienza-Sui Generis

IF you have just started leading people, you are expected to ensure that your team will consistently hit their targets. Your focus as a first-time manager is to ensure that your team’s output meets expectations. Managing people effectively starts with a combination of having the right skills, tools and attitude to ensure your team performs as expected. But it should not stop there.

As you manage your team, you will discover that being in that position is not enough to win over your team. They need someone who will motivate and inspire them to become the best version of themselves. Otherwise, they will not find meaning in what they do and look for it elsewhere. Before that time comes, you need to step up and become a leader more than a manager. To do that, you need to shift your focus from tools and processes, to what would benefit the entire team. You may have started out as a good manager, but if you want your team to exceed expectations and do more, you need to start transitioning from being a manager to becoming a leader.

Managers focus on processes and ensuring that their team follows these. Leaders look for better ways of doing things through people. While processes are necessary in ensuring your team performs consistently, it should not be put above your people. To be a leader, you need to elevate your motivation from what the process requires, to what your people can do. Leaders understand that processes are only a means to an end, and that ultimately results depend on their people. So, leaders focus on what people need more than the tools or process.

Similarly, leaders look for better ways of doing things and inspire their teams to do the same. Managers only focus on coaching their team members to ensure they follow processes. For leaders, change is an opportunity to step up and show the organization that their team can innovate and add value to the organization. Managers look at processes as law. Leaders look at processes as tools that need to be consistently updated for the benefit of the whole team.

Managers stay within their comfort zones and are careful to venture out. Leaders for opportunities for growth. Leaders take risks and when it does not work out, they take whatever lesson they can get and look for other ways. This is what is known as the growth mindset. Leaders learn as much as they can and take accountability for their team’s failures by understanding what can be avoided in the future, and what can be improved. Leaders move forward by understanding what can be improved and learning from their mistakes. Their team understands that the only way to succeed is to fail forward.

Managers focus on deliverables, leaders provide direction. You can see the difference by looking at their team’s output. Managers deliver goals as expected, leaders exceed expectations and even find alternative ways of doing things to reach their team’s goals. When we had a meeting with strategy leaders last week, there was one leader who taught his team that they need to recalibrate their action plans just as long as they stay true to their main objective. He saw obstacles as learning experiences and roadblocks as a sign to look for other ways.

Managers focus on individual team members. Leaders look out for the best interest of the team. Leaders understand that while team members have individual concerns, they should not jeopardize the function and deliverables of the entire team. Leaders make the hard decision to let go of team members who drag the team down and do not pull their own weight. After doing everything they can in mentoring and coaching them, leaders understand when to let go. When I was still managing a team, I had to put someone under a performance improvement plan, and it was one of the most difficult things I had to do. But my immediate supervisor showed me how her performance was affecting the entire team. In the end, she resigned and we were able to hire somebody who did the work better.

Managers focus on being liked. Leaders aim to be respected because they understand that respect is a better motivator than being liked. Leaders understand that being in such is not about popularity, but an opportunity to earn the respect of their team by consistently achieving goals and providing a clear vision of what the team can accomplish. When team members respect their leader, they follow because they believe in where their leader is going. Threats and punishments can only go so far as a motivator. If you want your team to do great things, you need to earn their respect by constantly showing up and delivering consistently.

Managers rely on their experience and current skills. Leaders continue to grow and develop themselves. There comes a point in managing people where you focus on having oversight of what your team is doing, more than the details of their work. You will no longer focus on individual work, but on workflows, professional relationships, and client management.

A good leader understands the social dynamics in their team, as well as the political underpinnings in their organization so they can skillfully navigate through it. Leaders do not just focus on the work they need to do, but on how their work and their team’s outputs affect others.

You might be a people manager or even an individual contributor, but that should not stop you from leading others. Before you can lead others, you should be able to lead yourself in the way you think, your attitude toward your team and your work, and how you conduct yourself with clients. Managers derive their authority from their rank and job description. Leaders have authority even without a title or position. Managers win games, but it takes a leader to win championships.

Image credits: Mimi Thian on Unsplash