Leaders and managers are often challenged with the complexity of their role and competing priorities. Let’s consider what their key focus areas should (or could) be for leaders and managers.
Academics have painstakingly analysed the difference in the roles between Leaders and Managers – and yet most of us spend most of our time being ‘Leader-Managers’.
Academics seem to have established a dichotomy between what leaders and what managers do. That there is some sort of imaginary line between the two roles and functions. In reality, most of us spend most of our time being blending these roles and adapting between the various functions, essentially becoming, ‘Leader-Managers’
Within these set of roles that Leader-Managers can adopt; there really are four key focus areas for each Leader-Manager and they apply these themselves to contribute to and work towards realising organisational results.
In summary these focus areas then are, firstly, how we set the direction for teams by ensuring we use outcomes that are clear and measurable. Second, how we prioritise focus and effort for where we seek a change in performance. Third, how Leader-Managers can ensure they keep the BAU ‘lights on’. And lastly, we will talk about the mindset of being proactive.
Let’s examine the four key focus areas for leaders and managers.
Leaders and Managers
For the students of leadership and management there has always been a perceived categorisation between the two roles and functions.
Seems to me that the background to this goes back to the earliest days of management where more senior levels of management had to be seen and perceived as doing different work to the people that managed, let’s say teams or activities. This most likely gave way to Executive Leadership Teams and separating the roles and responsibilities.
From his research and studies into leadership and management, Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, John Kotter has separated the roles in the following way.
Kotter’s separation of the roles and duties of leaders and managers has been very influential over the last 30-plus years (particularly through Leading Change).
However, today I see managers at all levels involved in planning and budgeting, organising people and teams, establishing a direction, motivating people, aligning people (consider how important your networks are within your organisation).
Again, it seems to be that we are always looking at what is done, rather than on what the focus areas for leaders and managers should be…
Application of these roles
Curiously, a blog on the by Harvard Business School Business Insights Blog, (C. Cote, October 2020) proclaims the following:
- 85% of executive leadership teams spend less than one hour per month discussing their unit’s strategy
- 50% of executive leadership teams spend no time discussing strategy at all each month
- 95 percent of a company’s employees don’t understand its strategy
- 90% fail to meet their strategic targets.
To me, these numbers seem astonishing. However, if these first two points are half true, then Executive Leaders may not be spending most of their time “establishing direction and aligning people”. It might appear that Executive leaders are spending more of their time on Kotter’s management functions of planning, budgeting, organising and controlling.
Again, with reference to the above points, and the last two points. From my observations: firstly, I would say that the majority of employees do not understand the strategy of their organisations. And secondly, I would say that most “Leadership” teams meet their targets, mainly because they have a hand in how they are set, which is another matter entirely.
Let’s now look at Management
Managers activities were first studied in the early 1916 by French industrialist Henri Fayol which identified the typical activities of Managers as being, planning, organising, coordinating and controlling. No surprises there. Seems Professor Kotter rediscovered these same functions 70 years later.
That early work was later verified and developed further by research conducted by Canadian Academic, Dr Henry Mintzberg in the 1980’s. Mintzberg then categorized this into 10 management roles within three domains.
Okay, so we have looked at Leadership and Management and seen that the academics have painstakingly analysed the roles leaders and managers take on.
So what value is there in considering ourselves either a leader or a manager?
Within the world we exist in, there seems little value in separating out the role of a Leader versus that of a Manager. Instead, I believe we are better off recognising that we are in roles where we are a blend of a Leader and a Manager.
I contend that we are all Leader-Managers, most of the time.
If I am a Leader of a team of people I will adopt and apply all of these attributes that we have covered for Leaders and Managers at some point in time.
The same if I am a Manager of Team Leaders. The same if I am an ‘Executive Manager’. We just apply the context of those roles to the level we occupy in the organisation.
Accepting this then, let’s look at what I believe there are the four key focus areas for leaders and managers (Leader-Managers).
Let’s give these four areas a heading so that we can arrange our thinking around these four focus areas.
Focus Area One: Leader-Managers set the direction in clearly articulated outcomes or results.
This first focus area for leaders and managers is setting the direction, not telling people what to do. It sets the direction with a clear outcome which then allows the team to contribute on how to make progress towards that clear outcome (Stacey Barr, 2017).
So many Leader-Managers feel it is their role to direct people in what to do, which in turn disengages the people. They complete the task come back to the boss and say, “that’s done, what now…?”. Or “that’s done but it did not work, what do I do now…?”
Leader-Managers set the direction in clearly articulated outcomes or results so that the team can become curious about how to make progress towards the outcome.
(Below is an example Outcomes/Results Map, connecting the outcomes for Teams to the Outcomes from their organisation’s vision/mission/purpose).
Then the Leader-Manager coaches and guides the team on how to get there.
It is ensuring the team has buy-in to the outcome and then apply a somewhat experimental or exploratory mindset towards developing the tasks on how to get closer to the outcome.
This approach builds a learning and improvement culture and empowers the team.
Leader-Managers set the clear direction so that:
- The teams become engaged – as opposed to “tell them what to do” – as they will have buy-in to the tasks they develop,
- Through using a measurement framework teams create an evidence-based understanding of how to make progress towards the outcome, and
- Develop commitment to learning and improvement, building their skills and knowledge about what works, and what does not on their journey towards the outcome.
Through these three points that come from this Leader-Manager focus area, the people that make up these teams will find more meaning in the work they do.
“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives…. we have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy.” (Dan Pink, 2009)
(Look also at: How to keep your strategy fresh,)
Focus Area Two: Prioritisation.
Leader-Managers make it very clear what the priorities are, so that teams can focus on achieving what they need to.
Prioritise what needs to change.
Coming from an understanding of the current baseline of performance (using performance measures as the evidence of this baseline) Leader-Managers focus on one or two areas of performance that need to change at a time. If there are more priorities than this that need to be achieved, then the Leader-Manager sets the priority as which ones are first, then second, third etc. Scheduling the priorities occurs across the planning period.
This approach is not only common-sense (not that I haven’t seen plenty of teams with too many priorities and no clarity on how to proceed) it is also backed by research. FranklinCovey conducted the research and published their findings in The 4 Disciplines of Execution (2012).
Part of the findings were that, if Leader-Managers are looking for a change in performance, then the greatest chance of realising that change is to prioritise within the capacity of the team.
It’s about what to focus on.
Where to focus the effort for change.
For areas of performance that we feel need to change, the teams and people need to focus their effort and time to make the change happen, just about always in amongst business-as-usual.
So, the priorities need to be clear with only one or two areas for change at a time.
There is a formula for how to set these priorities.
The Formula for Prioritisation
- Prioritise the outcome
- Select meaningful performance measures for the Outcome
- Know the current baseline of performance
- Add a target/s to the prioritised performance measures
- Teams work on making progress towards the targets
- Measures provide the feedback on the progress (the impact the work of the team is having)
The Leader-Managers role then (again) is to coach and guide the team on accomplishment of the priority. When done, ensure the change is locked in, so that things do not go back to the way they were. Recognise the achievement. Facilitate a debrief and reflection on the learnings. Then on to the next priority.
“Of all the things that can boost inner work life, the most important is making progress in meaningful work.” (Amabile and Kramer, Harvard Business Review May 2011)
(Look also at How to make sure your goals are S.M.A.R.T.)
These first two focus areas for leaders and managers use ideas and tools from the PuMP method – read more about this approach here: The Eight Steps to a High Performance Organisation.
Focus Area Three: ‘Keep the lights on’.
Leader-Managers ensure a good standard of performance in business-as-usual (BAU) is repeatable.
Well designed and built systems and processes produce reliable outcomes and confidence in the teams who use them.
Leader-Managers don’t let BAU performance be random luck.
Leader-Managers coach teams on how to establish and maintain systems, procedures and processes to maintain the standard of performance in BAU (again evidence-based knowledge using their performance measurement framework).
“...the simplest and most effective way you can enhance the inherent motivation of any project, process or work (is) by making progress visible. Short-circuit feedback loops, and protect your team from setbacks and delays, or from being ambushed by change. Avoid shifting goals autocratically, and maintain structures that provide context and visibility of the stuff that matters.”
(Jason Fox 2014, The Game Changer, page 95)
Focus Area Four: Proactive.
Leader-Managers take the initiative and are forward looking.
Being proactive is a mindset.
In some cultures, or philosophies Managers believe in fate.
It is a feeling that sometimes things are not only beyond their control but also beyond their influence. These types of Managers therefore can let things happen, because it was ‘fated’ to occur.
Proactive leadership is the opposite to this.
As a metaphor let’s consider Lifeguards on a patrolled swimming beach.
There are the red-and-yellow flags that tell us where the safer swimming spot is.
There is a sign advising us of the conditions.
The Lifeguards use the available information to ‘forecast’ conditions and use their specific knowledge of the area to identify potential dangers. They are constantly updating their assessment of the situation, as the tide moves, minute by minute the situation can change.
Lifeguards adjust the area and behaviour of swimmers to ensure maximum safety. They will make announcements and warnings to advise beach users of what is happening and how the conditions are changing.
They are focused on the outcome: Swimmers at the beach are safe.
Lifeguards are proactive.
Performing a rescue is a last resort.
Good Leader-Managers are proactive.
They know how to be on the front foot, to be looking ahead and willing to take the initiative.
Proactively work with their teams as a coach and take a broader perspective on systems the teams are interacting with.
They look ahead to see potential problems in advance and take action to avert or mitigate them.
They don’t get a buzz when they have had to perform a rescue. The rescue is a signal that they could have missed something and provides a learning opportunity.
Leader-Managers often do not accept the status-quo, but will work towards identifying roadblocks or challenges ahead and take the initiative to respond early that changes an outcome.
To sum up
Academics have painstakingly analysed the difference in the roles between Leaders and Managers. The functions and activity is studied, and yet the focus areas for leaders and managers is often lost.
Additionally, most of us spend most of our time being ‘Leader-Managers’.
There is much wasted effort and focus in debating Leadership versus Management. Accepting that we are Leader-Managers allows us to move forward, adapt and thrive.
Four key focus areas for Leader-Managers were identified (or at least suggested).
The first key examined how Leader-Managers set the direction for the efforts of the teams and people in a clear set of outcomes. Not prescribing the action, setting the direction of their efforts and then coaching them towards those outcomes.
The second key focus area was prioritisation, the formula to setting priorities for change in performance that people can work towards.
Thirdly, Leader-Managers need to ‘keep the lights on’, they make maintaining a good standard of performance in BAU repeatable.
And the fourth key focus area for Leader-Managers is to be proactive. Forward-looking, taking the initiative to mitigate issues that may arise.
When applied, whese focus areas for leaders and managers will improve buy-in from the teams, leading to motivation and improved performance over time.
- John Kotter (1996) Leading change, Harvard Business School Press, Boston (see also the Heart of Change (2002) with Dan Cohen)
- Catherine Cote, Why Strategy is Important; Harvard Business School Business Insights Blog, October 2020
- R.S Kaplan and D.P. Norton, The Office of Strategy Management, Harvard Business Review, October 2006
- Dr P. Kumar, An Analytical study on Mintzberg’s Framework: Managerial Roles, International Journal of Research in Management & Business Studies, Vol. 2 Issue 3 July – Sept. 2015
- Dr Henry Mintzberg (2009), Managing, Berett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco
- Stacey Barr (2017), Prove it! How to create a high-performance culture and measurable success, John Wiley and Sons, Milton
- Daniel H. Pink, (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
- C. McChesney, S. Covey and J. Huling, (2012) The 4 Disciplines of Execution, FranklinCovey (here’s a link to the YouTube Channel)
- The Progress Principle Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, The Power of Small Wins, Harvard Business Review May 2011
- Jason Fox (2014), The Game Changer, John Wiley and Sons, Milton (page 95)