I was talking to a senior IT leader at a global company this week, who said, “Our leadership team really needs to schedule some time to talk about strategic issues.  Our weekly IT Leadership Team meetings are consumed by tactical and operational stuff!”

This struck me as odd – and unfortunate!  “Tactical and operational stuff” should be on auto-pilot.  IT processes and management systems should take care of most things.  When I hear that an IT leadership team is consumed by the tactical and operational, my first reaction is that it is not a leadership team – it is a management team – a very different beast.

Leadership versus Management

Much has been written about the distinctions between leadership and management, so I won’t go far into this here.  For me, leadership is about influencing people, whether you have managerial authority over them or not.  Management is about exercising authority.  This basic distinction has important ramifications.  Leaders focus on the longer term and typically are concerned with achieving higher levels of performance for an organization.  Managers are more focused on the shorter term and on achieving agreed performance goals and objectives.

So, to recognize that “our leadership team doesn’t talk about strategic issues” is to recognize that it really isn’t a leadership team, it’s a management team.  That may be ok.  I worked with the CIO and his team at a major financial services company a while back.  They had been through a multi-year transformation under a new CIO.  The CIO and his team had been very ‘hands on’ and directive.  The results had been very positive, and the business clients of IT were impressed by the gains made from the transformation.  But, like many transformations I have seen, their performance improvement efforts had plateaued.  Managers and workers in the IT organization felt dis-empowered, so there was no real culture of continuous improvement.  The results of the annual engagement survey showed significantly lower employee engagement in IT than anywhere else in the company.

I raised the subject at an IT leadership team meeting, posing the question, “Are you a leadership team?  Or a management team?”  Consensus was quickly reached that they were a management team, with this finding justified by the sorry state of IT prior to the transformation, and the need for the top people in IT to drive change.

Which Do You Need – Leadership or Management?

I think that was a valid justification in their situation.  But the follow-up question, “What do you need to be now – a management or a leadership team?’ was much more contentious – especially as we drilled into what behavioral shifts would be implied if they did shift into a true leadership role.  For example, could they really trust their IT managers to manage?  If not, would they replace them with those they did trust to manage?

Dealing with this question and it’s implications became a major theme of my work with that team for the balance of the consulting engagement.  Great managers often have a hard time transitioning to a leadership role.  Great management teams have an even harder time transitioning to leadership teams – team members mutually reinforce each other’s instinct to be directive and in the details.

Have you fallen into the management trap?  How much time do you spend leading versus managing?

Graphic courtesy of Anthem Athletic Association

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