Disassembling Leadership

Team And Vision Are Two Different Skills

5 minute read

One of the biggest issues around the idea of management is that is assumed that a manager has to do two things at the same time:

  • Manage people
  • Build visions

This is an issue because:

  1. these two skills aren’t usually acknowledged to be required for management, thus hiring and promotion for this role don’t even check if the person can do these two.
  2. even when they are acknowledged, they are still two skills (on top of the others) that need to exist at the same time in the same individual: a rare occurence.

Not surprisingly:

Only 21% of employees feel strongly valued at work, and 49% of all employees are not satisfied with their direct supervisor.
Employee Engagement & Organizational Culture Report (2014)

60% percent of employees believe bad bosses (those who are demanding, overbearing, and mean) have the greatest negative impact on work-life balance
The Work-Life Imbalance Report (2015)

Disassembling Leadership: Managing People

Managing people requires lots of inter-personal work. It takes into account everything around communication both between people inside a team, and with the other teams. It means having the ability to set the right context for everyone to work at their best, to support personal and professional issues, remove roadblocks and overall create a great environment.

Not surprisingly, the disciplines that helped me most in managing people are psychology and social psychology. And of course, having had experience with different kinds of teams in different kinds of organizations (managing a close and long term product team is way different from managing a short term cross-company project team).

Someone with good people skills will:

  • be able to empathize with everyone
  • be able to coordinate people around their work
  • be able to shield them if something bad comes from the outside
  • be able to help resolving disputes and contrasts inside and outside the team
  • be able to keep an eye on the person, not just the individual, and help them beyond what’s strictly work
  • be able to communicate well with everyone, choosing the right register for each person
  • be able to help people make the right choice (not make the choice in their place!)
  • be able to help people grow in the direction they want to grow
  • be able to support people when they step in a new area

Disassembling Leadership: Building Visions

Building visions requires the ability to create something for the team to aim for. A long term, compelling, engaging perspective of where the team, or the company, is headed.

This is tricky because requires a balance between abstraction and pragmatism. It needs to be abstract enough to not being constrictive, but also pragmatic enough so it’s not an open ended question. It needs to be solid enough for people to focus on it, and they should be able to feel it’s concrete, possible and doable.

My design and facilitation skills here play a big role: not just because I am able to design something, thus making it real and tangible, but also because I’m able to get the team (or teams) to co-create toward that idea and build it up together.

Someone with good vision skills will:

  • be able to gather requirements and synthesize them
  • be able to define a clear end goal
  • be able to split that goal in incremental steps (versions, milestones, …)
  • be able to communicate the vision back, in different ways as different roles require

As you have noticed, one thing that appears in both is the ability to be a clear communicator: you need to be comfortable in talking to people to coordinate them. You need to be clear to help defining a vision. Skills like visual design and copywriting here play a big role, because the more clear you can be the better, and there’s nothing clearer than a short explanation and a visual diagram.

Two roles like any other

Acknowledging these two disciplines as discrete and separate, makes also possible to understand a that they are on the same field as any other: marketing, development, design, HR, sales, project management and so on.

There’s nothing special about them.

So there’s no need, in terms of skills, to imply a hierarchy due to one individual being a manager: a manager role is exactly like any other role inside the company. A team lead is a person that knows about people management, exactly like a developer is a person that knows about programming languages and architectures.

So what you can do at this point is that you’re not tied anymore in the magical thinking of an individual that does everything, but you can have clear and separate roles.

You can have one “manager” that manages the team, and another that defines the vision. Maybe you’ll call them managers, maybe not. Maybe you’ll still want to look for these two skills in the same individual and maybe not.

But now, you have the power to make that choice.

What to do?

Once you understand and notice these two skills as core requirements in management you are now able to:

  • Be better at hiring, because now you know what to look for. Sure hiring is challenging, but at least now you have some extra reference to check.
  • Be better at promoting, for the same reason. If a great person doesn’t have any ability in managing people, setting visions or communicating clearly with different roles, then maybe the promotion that should happen isn’t toward management.
  • Be better at training people to be good future managers because it’s more clear were they need to grow.
  • Be better at improving current managers, for the same reason.

What about hierarchy?

This split also has another important aspect: since managing people and defining visions are skills like any other, they don’t imply a hierarchy anymore.

Even if you can still call these roles “leads” or “managers”, it’s now clear that they are just point of reference to communicate efficiently, not ways to rank people in terms of value.

So a company hierarchy becomes now a more neutral choice, not dependent on career or rank: what’s the best structure to communicate effectively?

What about decisions?

Some management approaches describe management as making and implementing decisions, instead of the two criteria above on people and vision.

I don’t consider decisions an exclusive characteristic of management: every person in a company makes and implements decisions. The difference is that while a designer will work with design decisions, managers will work with people and vision decisions.

Management is a Career Change

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