One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of leaders is that they focus on vision and strategy, guiding and removing obstacles for their teams, similar to a coach in sports. By contrast, managers typically focus more on execution, working in the business.
Real leadership is about providing a compelling vision and clear direction. Successful leaders clarify priorities and expectations, define employee roles and ensure that the processes and capacity required for them to execute are in place.
The stance from which you lead makes a big difference in your employees’ job satisfaction. To engage workers today, focus more on leading instead of managing. I’ve found that most employees are looking for coaches who can help them develop and make the most of their strengths to add value for the company. This is especially true when it comes to millennials (the future workforce).
Leading a productive team entails letting go of daily operations to focus on setting a clear strategy and vision — the “why” and “what” — and getting comfortable leaving your team to manage the “how.” This can be challenging if you’re accustomed to triaging problems, putting out fires, and managing from a reactive standpoint. But as I’ve learned the hard way, proactively lighting the way is a teachable skill.
Managers Execute, Leaders Lead
As the CEO of a digital marketing agency, I used to review every monthly report for quality before it went out to our clients, which involved far too much “managing” time. Realizing it wouldn’t scale, I wrote a playbook on how to create these reports, trained the team, and let them loose. I am still CC’ed on them, but now I can focus on coaching people on opportunities to improve, and they know they won’t get my feedback before they send. This creates more accountability for others, and less “doing” on my part.
When I empowered the team to write those reports, everyone saw better outcomes. Here are three more ways you can shift from day-to-day management to leadership:
1. Establish core values — and follow them. While 80 percent of Fortune 100 companies talk about their core values publicly, they’re often hollow words that aren’t operationalized in any way. The magic happens when core values are ingrained into employees’ daily work lives and drive more autonomous decision-making.
Our core value, “embrace relationships,” empowers our managers to make financial decisions aligned with long-term outcomes, not short-term profits. So, rather than ask permission, they can come to me and say, “I made this concession for one of our partners because it was the right thing to do.”
To create the conditions for success, employees need to understand where the business is going and how they should behave to lead by example. Your core values inform your company culture, and including the team in the creation of those values can help workers feel more connected and empowered.
2. Don’t neglect your own professional development. Too often, leaders assume responsibility for everyone on their teams but themselves. Although we all need to manage at times, leaders are usually proactive; managers are reactive. To be a great leader, set aside time for your own professional development.
Join local and national professional organizations, or attend conferences to hear from other leaders who have found success. Look for groups that will challenge and support you beyond networking and handing out business cards. It’s important to seek out a successful coach or mentor and create a formal board of advisors. Nothing is ever as easy as it looks, so lean on the support and experience of others to guide you and learn from those who have done what you are looking to do.
But don’t forget to transfer this focus on development to your team. GitHub, for example, allows each employee to attend one work-related conference a year and will cover the travel costs if a teammate is invited to speak.
3. Spread the love, or risk burnout. If you try to do it all yourself, you will inevitably see diminishing returns on the time you invest. Successful leaders spend the majority of their time on tasks that utilize their own unique skills and abilities, and leave the rest to others who are more competent in those areas.
Try this exercise to figure out how to make that happen:
- Determine the maximum number of hours per week you can work and stay balanced.
- Calculate (honestly) how much time it takes to do all your necessary tasks well. If the answer is more than 100 percent of your max hours, delegate.
- List every single thing you do in a day.
- Create two columns to sort that list: In column one, put every task you love to do and are great at; column two is everything else.
- Stop doing or delegate everything in column two that puts you over capacity.
The great thing is, you’ll often discover that the things you aren’t good at (or don’t enjoy) align with the unique capabilities and favorite tasks of someone else on your team.
Although it might seem impossible to let go of the daily tasks of managing the business, getting out of that mindset and focusing on how to be an inspirational leader is the best investment you can make — in both your quality of life and the ultimate success of your business.
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