I’ve long been accused of conflating the roles of manager and leader. I admit to not giving a rat’s rear over the mostly academic and consultant-perpetuated myth of manager equals bad or small or narrow-minded and leader equals good. It’s a false dichotomy that everyone who has ever been accountable for the tough decisions and actions of running and growing a business well understands. I want all of us to focus on developing our managers as leaders from day one.

Leadership Behaviors Are Essential at All Levels:

The mix of activities and behaviors we associate with managing and leading vary based on level or title or scope. However, leaders need not exorcise their managerial competence and managers need not eschew behaving as leaders. Quite the contrary. We need to support the development of our managers as leaders from the start.

The well-rounded professional, regardless of level, practices with an emphasis on team and individuals and recognizes her role is one of developing, coaching, and guiding. The fact that the context is one in which work is accomplished in the case of our front-line managers, is immaterial—this individual is still leading.

Where We Fail to Develop Our Managers as Leaders:

Unfortunately, in too many settings, we plop our talented individual contributors into roles responsible for the work and development of others with little to no preparation and even less support. Without context and coaching for this foreign transition, we end up with a class of individuals attempting to direct others in pursuit of the work of a business. They flail and flounder and give the label of manager a bad name.

image of a female mountain climber leading her teamAlternatively, as time progresses those who often managed through more brute force and less finesse to rise through the ranks, are called upon to do things we associate with leaders. Freed from the daily drill, some of these individuals act in ways they perceive leaders act and disconnect from the work of helping the business and its’ people.

Yes, as much as we struggle to develop our managers, we fail on a larger scale to help develop our managers as leaders.

Let’s change this and start getting it right at the source.

By the way, I checked. The world needs more people skilled at getting work done with motivated and inspired teams.

Changing the Equation with Angela’s Question:

All of my professional development programs operate with the underlying assumption that leadership skills are essential for managerial success.

Operational agility—my term for what passes as management work—is one part of the equation. Learning what it means to lead and cultivating the courage and self-confidence to assert is another and equally (or more) important component.

Image of question marksA simple question I teach my management program participants to ask their team members is what I call Angela’s Question. Angela was a young project manager who taught me more about leading than I taught her. The question is: “At the end of our time working together, what will you say that I did?”

It’s a question that bears repeating when delivered. It also requires some deliberation on the part of the receiver. The responses, however, define the manager’s role as leader. No one will answer that question with issues of efficiency or productivity. All will offer something to the effect of teach, coach, challenge, treat fairly, hold accountable, or support.

Armed with this personal context, the manager is able to begin wrestling with the challenging work of molding this feedback into a “Leader’s Charter” to guide their efforts.

In my experience, this simple question and the resultant answers and work to talk through and codify what it means for the manager is transformational.

  • The dialog frames their role as larger and more important than productivity.
  • The context provides raw material to begin thinking of and manifesting a leadership style.
  • The outcome is a manager armed with the knowledge from day one that the behaviors we associate with effective leadership are the drivers of effective results for the daily work of individuals and the team.

However, a question alone, no matter how profound the answers, is a poor substitute for the dedicated, deliberate coaching and guidance of a senior manager.

Senior Managers, Step Up to the Work of Developing Leaders:

In working with more experienced managers who are navigating larger picture issues of strategy and change, I strive Note that reads: Change one thing and change everythingto orient their focus on developing the leadership skills of their direct report managers and supervisors.

Operational agility and the tools of management are easily learned in comparison to the behaviors that prepare a person to take on a larger role.

If you are responsible for developing the next generation of talent on your team, observing, coaching, challenging and providing regular feedback and feed-forward aren’t occasional activities, they are everyday activities.

It’s hard work.

It’s good work.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you are a first-time manager, don’t frame your role solely in terms of productivity. Ask your team members “Angela’s Question” and find a way to turn the answers into behaviors. Your approach will materially impact the productivity issue.

If you are a manager of managers, you own the success or failure of your charges. It’s easy to lose track of doing the right things to support their development in the course of daily and weekly challenges. It’s proper to fight like heck against the pull of the urgent and teach and cultivate the leadership skills in your managers daily.

We need more managers who lead.