The Transition from Manager to Leader

Last modified 20 February 2023
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
The Transition from Manager to Leader
As you progress through your career, you may hope that one day you’ll make the leap from a management position to one of leadership. Although becoming the leader of a department or even a company may be the culmination of years in management, it means learning entirely new skills and shifting your mindset. Michael D. Watkins, a Professor of Leadership and Organisational Change at IMD, undertook extensive research to discover the differences between management skills and leadership skills. He found that the shift can be understood as a series of transitions, which are explained as follows.

1.    Specialist to generalist

The biggest and most obvious challenge for anyone transitioning from management to leadership is the shift in focus from specialist function to general overview of all the business’s functions. Managers are usually in charge of leading a single function, allowing them to become specialists in that area. When they shift to overseeing multiple or all functions, it can be tempting to over manage the area in which they have the most experience and under manage those which fall outside their comfort zone. New leaders can help to protect themselves from this trap by building relationships with managers and experts in other functions and establishing a good reporting system. This gives leaders the ability to determine what standard is required in each function so that balance can be achieved.

2.    Analyst to integrator

Functional leaders, or managers, primarily recruit, develop and manage people who focus on specific business tasks in analytical depth. By contrast, an enterprise leader must manage and integrate the collective knowledge of each functional team to meet the overall goals of the business. Sometimes the individual departments have competing needs. That means that leaders need a general knowledge of each function. More than that, though, they must develop an understanding of how to make those trade-offs, thus integrating the needs of each department, and back up their rationale for those decisions.

3.    Tactician to strategist

A good manager is an excellent tactician. They know what their team is responsible for and concentrate on the concrete details that will help them and their team achieve those goals. A leader, however, needs to think above those concrete details. A strategic mind set requires one to develop three skills. Level shifting allows you to move fluidly between levels of analysis. Pattern recognition is the ability to determine important causal relationships and significant patterns so that you can separate the signal from the noise and concentrate on the important things. Mental simulation is a form of empathy, allowing you to anticipate how outside stakeholders will respond to your actions, and to predict their actions so that you can make proactive strategic decisions. Taken together, these shifts in mindset allow leaders to think ahead and develop a complex vision for their company which anticipates a number of variables.

4.    Bricklayer to architect

A bricklayer follows someone else’s blueprint, doing the day-to-day work to make it a reality. An architect, on the other hand, conceptualises the design. Where managers follow the vision of their leaders, architects create that vision. But there’s another difference. A bricklayer is focusing on one aspect of building a house. An architect has to encompass all the variables. Do the rooms maintain their structural integrity, and do they flow together well? How does changing one area of the house affect the way the rest of it functions?
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5.    Problem solver to agenda setter

Managers are often reactive, rewarded for their ability to fix problems and manage change. A leader, however, has to be proactive. It is to leaders that the task of setting an agenda for the company’s future falls. That means looking ahead and anticipating potential opportunities and crises, as well as putting that plan into action. The complexity of the task may leave you feeling overwhelmed, with infinitely more variables to consider than in your previous role. Look to your experts and your long serving members of staff to help guide you in working out where the priorities lie instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.

6.    Warrior to diplomat

As the manager of a team, you spend a significant amount of your time ensuring your people perform and the team delivers on promises. While it’s important as a leader to inspire and motivate the workforce, you’re also required to spend time dealing with external stakeholders, which can require a shift in focus. Instead of heading into battle every morning, refine your negotiation and persuasion skills, and use the tools of diplomacy to achieve your goals. And above all, remember that diplomacy takes time.

7.    Cast member to lead role

While all managers are role models to some extent, shifting to a leadership role means that all eyes are on you. No longer are you playing a supporting role: you’re the star of the show and your performance means the success or failure of the whole endeavour. This can come as a shock to many managers, who find the constant scrutiny and ramped up attention confronting. Being prepared for it will help, as will developing strategies to communicate that vision in an effective and disciplined way.

Ready to start your transformation from manager to leader?

These transitions aren’t easy but understanding how profound the transitions are can make it less startling when there are a few bumps in the road to true leadership. They also make the argument for a strong succession plan. When a company is able to identify potential leaders in the ranks of management, they can start to put in place systems that will make the shift easier. This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Harvard Business Review.

*The Australian Institute of Business (AIB) is Australia’s largest provider of MBAs. Source Ready, B. (2023) Domestic Enrolments Surged During COVID After International Students Locked Out, MBA News. Available at: MBA News.

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