Rising through the ranks: Ascending to management and leadership

For an individual in an entry-level position, the path to leadership has several checkpoints along the way.

For an individual in an entry-level position at an organization who aspires to rise through the ranks, the path to executive leadership – and claiming his or her very own chair in the C-suite – has several checkpoints along the way. 

First off, it’s important to acknowledge that nobody’s going to promote a newbie, especially not one with limited previous experience in the sector. With this in mind, workers with grand ambitions need to be patient and pay their dues, putting in time at the ground floor, learning how the company works and, if necessary, getting accustomed to the ins and outs of the industry in which the enterprise operates. At the same time, these individuals must build their own personal credibility and reputation, displaying soft skills such as effective communication as well as hard skills like the ability to meet – or, ideally, exceed – performance benchmarks. As leadership expert Merge Gupta-Sunderji noted in a column for The Globe and Mail’s Leadership Lab, “Most people get promoted to supervisor or manager because they have a track record of results, usually in some sort of analytical or technical role. They were accomplished at getting things done, and the eventual reward for their good work was the title of ‘manager.'”

For some individuals, a position in middle management proves to be a less than stellar fit. They may have been great employees, but they simply don’t have what it takes to excel in an administrative role. Does this mean they’re forever doomed to low-level positions with salaries to match? Of course not, but they may want to look into roles that allow them to return to the tasks at which they excel and perform these at a higher level. These “senior” roles often come with higher pay checks and components such as added training and mentorship responsibilities that give them the opportunity to guide less tenured members of the workforce.

“There are several key differences between a manager and a leader.”

But what of those professionals who join the middle-management ranks and thrive? Many people who fall into this category will soon train their eyes on the next rung of the corporate ladder: leadership. They might think that making the jump from mid-level manager to executive leader will be less of an adjustment than transitioning from employee to manager, but in many aspects, this isn’t the case.

What differentiates managers from leaders?
Citing insights from organizational consultant Warren Bennis, a leadership advisor to business executives and presidents of the United States alike, The Wall Street Journal Guide to Management broke down some of the key differences between a manager and a leader.

  • Managers… accept and maintain the current status quo, have a short-range view, are preoccupied by structures and systems, focus on the bottom line, follow the rules and copy or imitate others.
  • Leaders… challenge the current status quo and engage in innovation, have a long-term perspective, focus primarily on people rather than structures and systems, look ahead to the horizon and not down to the bottom line, break the rules when the time is right and blaze their own trails as opposed to following those traveled by others.

In a separate article for the Harvard Business Review, Vineet Nayar, former CEO of HCL Technologies and founder of the Sampark Foundation, observed three more differences:

  1. Managers count value by monitoring their subordinates’ productivity – and, in some cases, unwittingly driving down performance quality by acting as a distraction. Leaders create value by delegating tasks, setting examples and encouraging the people working under them to develop.
  2. Individuals go to managers for advice because they’re in what Nayar referred to as these managers’ “reporting hierarchy” or “circle of power.” Conversely, leaders establish a “circle of influence” containing people who aren’t obligated to report to them but choose to approach them in need of advice.
  3. Managers are focused on ensuring tasks are completed, while leaders pay more attention to the employees charged with completing those tasks and take the necessary steps to train and motivate these individuals to reach their goals.
Defining leadership can be tricky, especially when distinguishing it from management.Defining leadership can be tricky, especially when distinguishing it from management.

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, phrased the distinction between manager and leader quite succinctly during a panel discussion at the most recent Wisdom 2.0 conference, held earlier this year.

“I personally believe leadership is about the ability to inspire others to achieve shared objectives,” Weiner stated. “I think that’s what separates leaders from managers. Managers tell people what to do and leaders inspire them to do it.”

The leadership sea change
The good news is that professionals who have been chomping at the bit in anticipation of a position in which they can finally make their mark will have the opportunity to do just that as a leader. However, perks like this are tempered by more challenging aspects such as increased responsibility, a predominant switch-out of quick-fix problems with long-term, complex issues, the pressure of trying to please everyone from members of the workforce to shareholders and members of the board, and a refined definition of accomplishment.

“Accomplishment means different things to different people.”

Speaking to this last point, Gupta-Sunderji detailed how accomplishment means different things to different people, depending on their level within the organization.

“In the past, you could take a task from beginning to end and enjoy the gratification that came from a job well done, and you might have even been publicly or privately recognized for your efforts,” Gupta-Sunderji noted. “As a leader, satisfaction now comes from watching members of your team take projects from start to finish, and rather than receiving recognition, it’s your job to give it. Your sense of accomplishment must now come from seeing others grow and develop, or sometimes, simply from surviving a business crisis with a minimum number of casualties.”

Is there such a big difference after all?
Is the distinction between manager and leader really as clear-cut as the way Wiener described it? After all, isn’t it possible for a middle-manager to be an innovative, long-term thinker focused more on people than process, even though this attribute is typically associated with executives higher up in the organizational structure? As management consultant Steve Tobak pointed out in a recent column for FOX Business, even LinkedIn – a company run by a CEO who sees a firm divide between leader and manager – refers to its executives as composing a “management team.”

“In the real corporate world, the terms are used interchangeably,” Tobak asserted. “Half the companies say ‘leadership team’ while the other half say ‘management team.’ The only times we distinguish between the two are when we’re talking about skill sets. But make no mistake, when we call someone a manager, we never imply an individual who orders people around because she lacks the ability to inspire.”

With this in mind, perhaps the professional development process shouldn’t be as much about rising through the ranks from worker to manager and then leader as it is about being an employee who’s promoted to a position that involves overseeing other members of the workforce, then developing skills and experience over time to serve this role more effectively. At the end of the day, aspects such as employee engagement and performance levels will benefit or negatively affect a company just the same regardless of whether the people overseeing operations are referred to as “leaders” or “managers.”

About Caldwell Partners
Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 45 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.