Leading vs Managing – understanding the difference

Tight budgets and even tighter timelines mean startups today have to be laser-focused and efficient – every person counts because every £ counts. This isn’t a place for complex hierarchies and managers tucked away in offices. With limited resources and never-ending to-do lists, founders have to switch between numerous roles constantly, from inspirational leader to practical manager, or the most organised company secretary.

Start-ups might be shaking up the status quo, but wearing so many hats can be daunting – and exhausting. Flat structures are great – and necessary – in the very early stages of a business, but as the company grows and becomes more complex (and has more money to spend!), understanding different roles and responsibilities becomes all the more important.

Why is it important for start-ups to make the distinction between managers and leaders?

In my role supporting startups, one of the biggest challenges I help founders with is to how to develop from being a do-er, to being a leader of do-ers. In the early days, that means developing a combination of management and leadership skills, but as time moves on, it means helping them to become more leaders than managers. And that’s crucial because, while both manager and leader roles have critical value to an organisation, it is very hard for one person to be everything.

To quote Churchill…

“The nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are keeping their ears to the ground.”

Making this step from management to leadership also links back to a wider issue, which is the failure of UK start-ups to scale-up and become high-growth businesses and serious global players. According to Mark Hart, an Aston University professor who runs the Enterprise Research Centre: “Too many of these businesses do not create jobs or do anything for UK productivity. We have long had a problem with turning startups into high growth companies.”

Transitioning from a start-up to a high growth company is no mean feat and the two are entirely different beasts. One practical step towards preparing your startup for growth is to put thought into your team structure and people related infrastructure from the get-go. It’s not just thinking about roles and responsibilities whilst you’re in start-phase, it’s ensuring you have the fundamentals in place for when you move to the next level.

So where do you start?

My first piece of practical work with a founder, when looking at their role, is to help them understand the differences and the crossover between a manager and a leader. In the early days, it will be important that they are both, and although some people will have natural tendencies to one or the other, both are required, and they will need to work on this. Then, over time, unless they plan on not being the leader of the business (which is rare), they will need to hire managers and other leaders into the business to support them.

What is the difference between a manager and a leader in a startup?

The old-fashioned view of a manager as a supervisor, who tells people both what to do and how to do it, no longer really exists. Although you may find the last few lurking in the odd corporate, a startup environment is too transparent, and everyone needs to get their hands dirty and play a role. There is nowhere to hide.

For this reason, empowering people to work out ‘how’ they will achieve their goals has traditionally been a leadership skill but is now a requirement of managers too. As a result, with time being a scarcity in startups, most managers already embody many leadership skills – they are expected to lead after all!

Breaking it down, ultimately, the main differences between leaders and managers are nuanced…

Leaders engage the heart. They are storytellers, orators, and phenomenal teachers, with the vision to stir and stimulate emotion. They talk about ‘the why’, about purpose.

A leader is only created if people believe in you and will follow you. They must therefore be ‘authentic’, with an eye firmly on the long-term direction of the business (often extremely hard in startup land) and a vision that engenders support by harnessing the power of emotion and strength of heart. A true leader has the ability to transition their employees from one emotional state of mind to another, thereby building a trusting and loyal following.

Managers engage the brain. They make sure that their team can perform and achieve their goals, ensuring that the right stuff gets done and, with a keen eye for detail, have the ability to plate-spin and to see things through to the ‘end’. The best managers (and really the new breed) understand that people are not monkeys – people want to and need to use their brains to feel fulfilled. Great managers distill ‘the why’ into ‘the what’. They then let the team work out ‘the how’.

Is it possible to become a leader?

Of course it is!

As a founder, you will already be managing your business, and I’d advise you to think carefully about how involved you want to be in this day-to-day. To become a leader, the first step needs to be to transition your thinking away from the present and towards the long term.

But what about the now, I hear you say? Overburdened managers can never become great leaders, and to make this transition successfully you must start to delegate some of your responsibilities. This means you need to have a strong team that you can trust, and who are empowered, otherwise you’ll always get dragged into the detail over and over again.

Many of the founders I work with already harbour the traits I mention above, but simply lack the time to truly harness them. By reducing (one way or another) their day-to-day business responsibilities, they can dedicate more time to the long-term vision and building the support and loyalty they need for the journey ahead.

There is an age old question as to whether leaders are born or made and yes, some people have natural tendencies, but nonetheless, if you have a powerful vision, no matter your background you can absolutely become a leader.

I recently re-watched Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with why’ TED Talk, and he encapsulates it perfectly when he says: “Martin Luther King made an ‘I have a dream’ speech; not an ‘I have a plan’ speech.” People are inspired when their beliefs match yours. So as a leader, having complete clarity on the purpose, on your why, is critical.

But, manager, leader or both, you can’t be everything to everyone. If you are feeling the pressure within your business to lead as well as manage, take a step back, evaluate your skills and your ambitions, and build a plan from there. And remember…

“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” Ronald Reagan.

(Originally published as an interview by Digital Risks)


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