Business Times

To be a Manager or Leader!

By Lionel Wijesiri

Long time ago, when I was a young executive undergoing management training, my guru told me one of his experiences. Once he picked up two of his young executives and gave each of them an assignment with stiff deadlines. One of them, palms upward, said, “But I don’t know how to do it. Please give me some guidelines” The second one didn’t know how, either, but quietly thought for a while and said, “Well, I’ll figure it out how to do it. I will come to you, if need”.

The first one grew up to become a superb manager who believed training to be the key to success. He used to tell his subordinates: “Go to some weekend classes. Learn to do things correctly. Get a good job done.” The second person grew up to be a classic leader who believed initiative to be the key to success. He used to tell his subordinates: “Look deep into your division. Innovate. Stay a step ahead of the pack.”

The story reminded me of today’s corporate executives. Are they leaders or are they managers? My experience with senior executives tells me that that most of them tend to think of themselves as leaders, but they are not. The modern view of a manager is quite different to the modern view of a leader. You lean one way more than you lean the other.

Managers believe in bringing the best of the past forward. They talk about best practices. They believe in compliance, conformity and steady evolution. They believe in “tweaking” things to reach “the next level.” They say, “One step at a time and with each step taken, move the finish line one step further away.” They are not believers of “re-inventing the wheel”.

On the other hand, leaders make memories and sometimes, history. They talk about sweeping change and a new day. If we sum up the concept, it runs like this; Possibilities are the currency of a leader. Realities are the currency of a manager. Leaders create things from nothing. And then managers slowly improve those things.

Here’s an example: Nilanthi and Ruwan were two Executives heading two divisions and marketing two different consumer products. The CEO directed Nilanthi, to hire enough new employees to provide her product range with a state-of-the-art customer service. Nilanthi undertook her project with enthusiasm. She hired only the employees who could work the assigned hours, would accept the modest pay, and had experience working in customer service. She trained her new employees to perform the job to her expectations and assigned the employees to their new positions. Nilanthi measured her success in terms of efficiency, calls handled per hour, and cost effectiveness.

Ruwan also was given the same assignment as Nilanthi. He hired employees that he believed he could develop a working relationship with. Ruwan's goal was to hire a diverse group of employees, some of who did not have any customer service experience, who he felt he could develop a personal connection. A large part of Ruwan's training involved team building, telling success stories and listening to each employee's own desires for what constituted a fulfilling job. Ruwan, too, assigned his employees their job duties and scheduled at the end of training, and he also measured success in terms of efficient and cost effectiveness, but he also measured success in terms of low employee turnover, employee morale, and employee development.

After six months, 60% of the employees Nilanthi hired had left the company and it took a long time for Nilanthi to understand what went wrong. Ruwan fared very much better. His staff turnover rate during this period was only 15%.

So, if you are corporate executive, what is your ambition? Do you want to be a a leader or a manager? To be truly successful in an executive’s career, you need to know which role, leader or manager, to play at what time and under what circumstances.

Today’s workplace is placing different demands on those who lead and manage the organizations. The pressures are intense, the priorities are seemingly in a state of flux, and the amount of knowledge expands at an unprecedented rate. Old management models don’t work in this world of globalization.

(The writer is a corporate director with 23 years of hands-on experience in General Management.)

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