Evolving From Manager To Leader



Evolve From Tactician To Strategist And Lead

Leadership has transformed over the last couple of years and will continue to transform as leaders are faced with unprecedented complexity and change emanating both externally and internally to their organizations. This series of articles titled “The Leadership Blueprint” offers a blueprint on key elements of leadership that you, as a Learning & Development (L&D) leader, can adopt and adapt to your organizational contexts. The series focuses on key leadership functions, including driving digital transformation, leading people, harnessing data, driving culture change, and focusing on the future, among others. This article focuses on how you can effectively transition from the role of a manager to the role of a leader across six role evolutions.

What Differentiates Leading From Managing?

Leadership studies luminary Warren Bennis said once that “managers focus on doing things right, whereas leaders focus on doing the right thing.” In his Forbes article, Andy Boynton, Dean of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, clarifies that managing is critical because it keeps the organization running. However, leading is pivotal because, without it, organizations cannot grow, innovate, and reach new highs in serving customer needs and inspiring employees. The Harvard Business Review article “How managers become leaders,” Michael Watkins discusses the transition from one role to another. Here, we dig in deeper and provide three tips: how to build each role transition skill, what to watch out for, and how to get better as you grow as a leader.

Specialist To Generalist

One of the foundational transitions you will first need to focus on as you transition from manager to leader is changing your approach from specialist to generalist. Here, you will need to shift your focus from operating in one function to seeing the broader enterprise and identifying its challenges and opportunities for growth. To achieve this transition, you will need to build your confidence by overseeing a full set of business functions and making high-stake, enterprise-wide decisions as opposed to smaller radius decisions impacting your immediate team. In this transitionary skill, you will need to watch out for your tendency to over-manage the function you know well and under-manage, neglect, or even micro-manage the other functions you are not as familiar with. To improve your transition, practice making good decisions for the business as a whole and practice engaging the talent in the new functions you oversee.

Analyst To Integrator

In this transition, you will need to manage and integrate the collective knowledge of functional teams to solve organizational problems by integrating learnings, data, and experiences. To build this skill, you will need to balance the needs of the supply side (operations) with the needs of the demand side (sales and marketing) to know when to focus on quarterly business results (finance) and when to invest in the future (R&D). To be successful, you will need to watch out that you are not avoiding the responsibility of making trade-offs and explaining your rationale. To improve on this skill, you will need to practice making the tough calls and learning from the experience.

Tactician To Strategist

Here, you will need to delegate the day-to-day tactical operations so that you can focus on the big picture and the long term. To build this skill, you will need to practice when to zoom in to the detail and when to zoom out to the big picture. In this stage, you will need to watch out for staying in the weeds and overanalyzing the minutia. To improve upon this skill, you will need to practice level shifting, pattern recognition, and mental simulation of big-picture alternatives.

Bricklayer To Architect

To transition into an architect’s role, you will need to adopt a systems-thinking approach. To build this skill, you must understand how key elements of the organization fit together and are impacted by each other in the immediate, medium, and long term. Here, you will need to watch out for not thinking through the implications that change in function can bring to the rest of the organization. You will need to think holistically and broadly about change and its impact. To improve on this skill, you will need to familiarize yourself with change management, digital transformation, agile organizational design, business process improvement, communication techniques, managing polarities, and building coalitions.

Problem Solver To Agenda Setter

While you will always be a problem solver, as you evolve into a leader, you will need to discern and prioritize which problems and challenges across the enterprise warrant tackling first and how to allocate the necessary resources to do so. To build this skill, you will need to practice engaging the team to set the agenda of issues to address. As you evolve, you will need to watch out so that you do not focus only on the immediate and urgent but also on the important and long-term challenges. To build on this skill, you will need to become comfortable navigating volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) within and outside your organization.

Front-Line Warrior To Diplomat

As you evolve from a front-line warrior to a leader, you will need to finesse your diplomacy and coalition-building skills so that you can cultivate relationships and influence stakeholders. To build these skills, you must engage in industry forums, build thought leadership, listen actively, and learn how to manage polarities. A key risk to mitigate here is to ensure you do not consume all your energy in winning the battle only to end up losing the war. As you evolve further, you will need to finesse your negotiation, persuasion, conflict management, and alliance-building capabilities.


As you transition from managing to leading, you will need to evolve and expand your current role into broader functions. As such, you will need to evolve from specializing in a few areas to expanding your knowledge as a generalist leveraging your business acumen; you will expand from being a tactician to a strategist, and from a bricklayer of tasks to an architect of the path to implementing the mission. While you will always be a problem solver, now you will expand to setting the agenda of which problems to go after across the enterprise. Finally, as a leader, you will need to evolve from the front-line warrior to a diplomat that builds coalitions, manages polarities, and negotiates for win-win business outcomes.




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