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Moments of Insight
from Executive Coach Michael Wolkensperg

Leading or managing: whatʼs the difference?

I'm often asked this question, and the quick answer is that managers "control" and leaders "inspire".

But it goes a lot deeper than that. Managing is pretty easy when compared to leading. Furthermore, managing is very satisfying because we can be systematic and the outcome can be, god knows, almost perfect. Leading, on the other hand, is risky, because, by its very definition, leading is being the first in line, taking the first step into the unknown.

Having the insight, the vision, to see the bigger picture helps reduce the risk but it still takes courage and conviction, to not only take the first step, but more importantly, make believers out of followers to also take that first step and follow you.

Getting a handle on prioritization

The keys to executive success are many, but near the top of the list has to be the ability to prioritize - be able to separate the important from the unimportant, and do it with a sense of confidence.

Most people find that difficult. Prioritization is risky - what if I select wrong and it is not the priority. Not only does it look bad on me, but I lose time, resources, and opportunity while I make the necessary correction.

One easy way to check is to ask, "Am I doing that which only I can do?" In other words, am I working at my level, at a level appropriate to my position. At the very least this will lift you above the weeds and help to gain the all important perspective. You'll know where you are on the strategy map and can better decide if what you are doing is in fact the priority, or quickly take corrective action.

Career advice in only 30 Seconds

The simplest, and perhaps the best, career advice I have ever given is: worry about what your boss worries about.

In other words, align your priorities with your boss' priorities. If you can apply your energies and creatively contribute to reducing what your boss stresses about, you can't help but be considered as someone with a future in the organization.

As you might have guessed, this sounds easier than it really is. Because, first, how can I worry about what the boss is worrying about, if I don't know what that is? She just keeps it to herself. In that case, I suggest you get in the habit of asking - make it a topic, and be sincere. After a while, talking about priorities will be the natural course of office life.

And second, the feeling that it is not your job to worry about the boss. After all, worry flows down, not up. And you are partially right. But if you only worry about your subordinates and not your superiors, that is, if you only manage downwards, and not upwards, you will make the climb to the senior levels very difficult for yourself.

A batting coach for executives?

"What can an executive coach do for me?" is a bit like a major league ball player asking what a batting coach can do for him.

Now, you would think that a major league ball player already knows how to get the most out of an “at bat”. Yet the powers that be will hire a batting coach, at some expense, with the result that the players improve and do better at the plate. The team wins more games.

It is a bit mysterious as to what makes the difference: maybe it is reviewing the basics; maybe it is giving alternate perspectives; maybe it is helping to understand the nuances of emotional interference.

One never really knows what will make the difference.

Executive coaching is a lot like that. What is important is that the executive being coached becomes a better major league player and the organizational leadership becomes stronger – and wins more often.

At times like these, exchange fear for inspiration

If you have ever wondered what true leadership is, wonder no more; these economic times will quickly reveal the true leader.

At times like these, managers are busy. They are cutting costs, closing plants, checking the stock market for the latest valuation of their pensions. There is no purpose to their activities except survival. And the motivation for survival is almost always fear.

Leaders on the other hand, are mindful of the difficulties of the situation but look for clarity of understanding and unusual opportunity. Their behaviour is characterized by courage and discipline. A leader focuses on creating a multitude of perspectives, give proportion to reality, and in the process exchanges fear for inspiration.

The sweet spot of corporate success

I often hear the mantra that managers “do things right” and leaders “do the right thing”. Doesnʼt it make more sense that most executives, be they managers or leaders, or both, depend on doing the right thing and on doing it right? If not, then what does a leader do so differently? In other words, what distinguishes a leader from a manager?

As managers develop the insight to know with more certainty what the right thing to do is, they begin to emerge as leaders for one reason: They begin to understand the sweet spot of success in the corporate world.

The sweet spot of corporate success is where strategic, operational, and political

In other words, success is when the decision is right when examined from all three perspectives: Strategic – is clearly aligned on the strategy map, Operational– faultlessly executed, and Political – recognizes the political forces at play and individual self interests.

I am sure you can see that getting only one right can be devastating under certain circumstances and getting only two right can cause some distress, but getting all three right: That's the leader's sweet spot.


The Author

Rushmore Judge

The founder of The Rushmore Judge Group, Michael Wolkensperg is a seasoned business executive and leadership development professional with over 32 years experience consulting to a variety of organizations in Toronto and across North America and Europe. His hallmark is a rigorous and thorough approach to the scenarios that make up professional executive advisory services practice. Michael's solid professionalism was grounded in his ventures as a search partner with two national human resources and organizational development consulting firms and as the founding director of the human resources function for Magna International, a multinational manufacturing company with over 14,000 employees. Michael directs, manages and oversees the operations of The Rushmore Judge Group.

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Copyright 2009 by Michael Wolkensperg. All rights reserved.

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