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How to lead people vs. manage them

Jan 20, 2023

Managing is not the same as leading. We manage processes, but we lead people. And the leading of people is what is most critical for success in your organization.

The first, and perhaps most critical, role a leader plays is to create a deliberate and thoughtful connection between the company’s business strategy and its people plan. Of the many challenges faced by organizations, the majority are due either to the lack of a connection or serious misalignment between an organization’s strategy and its people.

While most organizations spend time developing a coherent business strategy, an alarming number do not consider a formal people plan to be a part of that strategic exercise. The net effect, whether intentional or not, is akin to hoping you will hit the lottery in order to make payroll. You’re simply leaving critical execution of your business goals to the hope that they will somehow magically align to your employees’ potential.

As the responsibility for creating and implementing the strategic priorities of the company is a true leadership activity, it follows then that connecting those priorities to the people who will be accountable for their execution is also a key leadership activity.

Developing your team: Linking strategy and execution

This function — linking strategy and execution — is a very deliberate and active role a leader plays. This isn’t merely a function to manage; it’s a function that must be intentionally crafted. And it is every bit the creative exercise as that of generating the strategic goals of the organization.

It requires an understanding of the business role your people will need to play to ensure goals are met and a commitment to an honest evaluation of their capacity for the work that must be done. If employees lack the appropriate skills necessary to execute the plan, then the leader is tasked with either developing them sufficiently or making a decision around the talent needs of the business requisite to meet the strategic objectives.

This is often one of the most anxiety-producing roles the leader must play: the accountability for meeting goals, and, connected with that, the accountability for evaluating and developing the employees responsible for that execution.

When the full weight of that responsibility is truly understood, most leaders experience moments of significant apprehension. An absence of anxiety might suggest an extraordinary leader; or, more likely, a leader who has not thought deeply enough about the responsibilities incumbent with leading.

A healthy anxiety is natural when one realizes that the selection, or deselection, of team members and the development of that team is their sole responsibility and the metric against which they should be measured as a leader.

Here again, we are talking about an active role: the deliberate development of employees to support their capacity to take on work and execute that work competently. While managing employees may include tactical elements of addressing the work that must be performed, the act of leading is distinguished by the focus on purposeful development.

Meeting consistently and deliberately with employees to address developmental goals and working with them to evolve the necessary skills and understanding appropriate to their role is a foundational part of leadership.

This work is predicated on an understanding that the leader’s primary responsibility is the execution of the organization’s priorities through that team — not through the leader’s individual effort, but through the effective development and leading of the team for whom they have responsibility.

This understanding is critical if employees are going to develop sufficiently, acquire the capacity for advancement and create additional bandwidth to accept more work.

Responsibility for key outcomes

In a related way, leading means responsibility for key outcomes. Beyond simply managing around outcomes, leading suggests an active responsibility for either developing employees to succeed or making adjustments to team selection to ensure the talent is present to execute goals.

There is nothing passive about governing priorities. Accountability requires a combination of motivating — or cheerleading — employees and a willingness to hold team members accountable for their required outcomes.

When regular developmental conversations are a part of the leader’s arsenal, this accountability is easier to create and maintain — you have put in the work effort to develop their capacity to perform and you have created conditions for their success, so a failure to meet goals is more telling of individual limitations in a role. But when you haven’t worked to develop your direct reports, their lack of success is mutually attributable to your own lack of focused development with them. This is your failure as a leader, perhaps more so than the failure of an individual employee to meet their objectives.

Leading is the job

Since accountability fundamentally rests with leaders around the creation of strategy, the linkage of that strategy to the organization’s people and the actual execution of that strategy by employees, leading (and by extension leadership development) has the single greatest impact on the success or failure of an organization. Yes, we talk a great deal about the role of leaders and their developmental needs, but this simply underscores the profound impact good leaders can have within their organization — and, by contrast, the tremendous risk poor leaders introduce to their organizations.

Leading is the job. When an individual holds responsibility for the development and the performance of employees, that is their key role — and should be their key focus — in the organization. Failure to appreciate this, and to take steps necessary for their development, puts the entirety of the organization at risk as it creates a chain reaction of negative outcomes. Key objectives aren’t tied to execution, employees aren’t developed, the capacity of the organization is unnecessarily constricted and the acquisition of talent is confined solely to recruiting efforts instead of being self-generated.

For these reasons and many more, a focused approach to leadership development and a committed support of leadership activity must be a foundational part of any organization’s approach to their business and their people.

How Wipfli can help

Wipfli’s leadership development programs help leaders at every level cultivate a leadership mindset that empowers others to thrive. Learn more about how we help clients with people, process and strategy on our organizational performance consulting web page or learn more in these articles:

Author(s)

Steve Hopkins
Director, Organizational performance
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