Managing your career: are you a leader, maverick, manager or doer?

Blog - Managing your career are you a leader

I have worked for some truly admirable people who make me proud that I had the privilege of playing in their team, and of learning my trade from them.

They range from a City Grandee, to a turnaround expert, to one of the best and most inclusive corporate players I have ever had the pleasure to serve.

Probably like you, I have also seen and worked for some desperately poor bosses, over the years, people who are memorable for all the wrong reasons.

There have been bullies, alcoholics, megalomaniacs, liars, and those who were just plain useless; some had been placed in their positions of authority by others, whilst a number had found the way into their posts by generating a lemming-like following of acolytes, who thought they could do no wrong.

There is almost nothing as debilitating and demoralising as sharing a work environment with someone who is professionally incompetent or behaviourally inept, and who has earned a position of responsibility for reasons that are forever a mystery!

Today I operate as a volunteer, in an environment where that type of person could mean the difference between survival and death; in my opinion, the dedicated and skilled front-line staff often keep the service afloat, in spite of their managers.

In the business and commerce world, we all need to care about how we avoid professionally inadequate people from prospering, and how we ensure that we avoid attracting criticism about ourselves.

Professionally, I have had considerable success in my career; I have also made some poor calls, and certainly exhibited room for improvement. Because of my ‘type’, I have always tried to identify where I have gone wrong, fix it, and avoid a recurrence.

That level of self-awareness, the ability to be analytical and self-critical, and the humility to invite and absorb constructive criticism from others, is essential. I was brutally coached on this point in my early career, when I was told I had a level of self-awareness similar to a “run-away JCB”.

Let’s start then, by distinguishing between the differing roles in the workplace.

The Doers are the essence of many organisations; their actual productive grunt work is required to make the place function – on the forecourt, someone has to clean and polish the cars; in the call centre, someone has to handle the phone or web-based traffic; in the baggage hall, someone has to move the passengers’ luggage; in the utilities sector, someone has to dig the hole to reach the fault.

Happily many Doers are satisfied with their lot – they are content to arrive on time (but not much earlier), hop on to the treadmill, and jog diligently through the day, before leaving on time, and returning home, with very little thought for the workplace, until they rock up for their next shift.

The Doers follow process that is established, proven, and measured for them by someone else – they are relatively dis-interested in stepping away from that process, they may only give feedback on their work content if and when asked.

We would all be in a bad place without the Doers, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with being a Doer – in fact, it’s a pretty important piece of the formation and learning for all of us.

The Doers, however, need to be motivated and supervised by a different being, one who controls the treadmill, provides access to it, and decides when the speed needs to be changed, to meet organisational goals, or when additional coaching is needed because output is not good enough.

This is the Manager or Supervisor role, the place in the organisation for those of us who know the processes, know what the levers and drivers are, and have the will and the skill to lead others in pursuit of the outcomes.

Managers and Supervisors are the translators; they accept the legitimacy of the organisation’s goals, lead their teams to deliver the required outputs and targets, and contribute to the process of shaping future goals.

There are two angles to this role, operational capability, knowing the processes, as described earlier, and behavioural skills to motivate, communicate, observe, and to exhibit pastoral care and respect for their teams.

Not everyone has the potential to be a Manager; many do not want the responsibility, many others abuse it, and some just get it wrong; others are excellent in the role, and become completely indispensable to their organisations, their leaders, and their teams.

A good Manager is someone we look up to, respect, follow, and often even like, because of their elegant and inoffensive, but knowledgeable style…becoming one requires accumulation of knowledge, skill, and behaviour.

In contrast, working for a poor Manager can be a misery – these people can sap the energy and motivation of fired-up, eager, and intelligent people, in a heart-beat.

A great Manager is constantly prepared to push their sleeves up and get stuck into the job, hands-on, when needed, and to provide visible support to their team.

Have you recognised yourself yet?

Not all Managers have the potential to be Leaders; organisational leadership is a different beast – this is the role for those who have vision, resource and strategic thinking ability; they also need the capability to assess and quantify risk, because they take decisions that affect everyone else.

Leaders can decide that an additional call centre is needed, because of approaching capacity, or that an emerging new technology means we need to change the organisation to survive when it arrives, or that we should acquire a weaker competitor, or that we should be expand into new markets, products, or services.

Leaders do not always make good Managers – many do, and have worked their way up from the ground-level in some capacity, often acquiring a working knowledge of varied disciplines; others have essential qualities, characteristics, and facilitative skills, which do not lend themselves top day-to-day management.

Politicians can be an example of people who have found themselves in a position of leadership without serving their apprenticeship as Doers or Managers – we hear political leaders trying to illustrate their humble roots to us, trying to prove that they were once like us, so they know exactly what we’re going through…often the silver spoon in their mouth was so large that they couldn’t see over it!

Those who have come up through the ranks in business and commerce are proud to exhibit their provenance, while those who are just natural or born leaders seem to have an empathy and a sense for what makes the organisation work, and what is needed to deliver on their strategies.

Those people though must have the humility to recognise where they need to augment their operational knowledge – that’s why leaders “return to the shop-floor”.

One of the great leaders of my career was a CEO under whom I served as a Director. When he was not fulfilling his CEO role, his Board and City duties, and his leadership of essential meetings, he was out and about, constantly on the move, amongst the workforce, the customers, and the suppliers, finding out what was really happening, observing opportunities for operational as well as strategic improvement.

Consequently, Directors’ meetings tended to contain a few surprisingly accurate insights, from a man, some of whose peers in competitor organisations seldom left the comfort of their sedan-chair!

All of which leaves the Maverick – and you’re all wondering what that is, and what role exists for these ‘off-the-wall’ characters in a ‘structured organisation!

Within reason, organisations need mavericks, those who will not or cannot do, or manage, or lead, whose behaviours may not be particularly inclusive; they may be happy to be excluded from the day-to-day business, but may also have a knack of spotting ideas and innovations that could be breakthroughs.

Vision and great governance is required to attract and integrate Mavericks successfully into an organisation, combining freedom, tolerance, resource, and some checks and balances to avoid chaos!

We should all try to have some good ideas and original thoughts – mavericks though, are the potential game-changers, some will succeed, others will fail; others will turn out just to be work-shy and not maverick at all!

Which are you, what are your plans to progress from your current role, and what does this mean for Procurement?

First, build and maintain a self-portrait of which type you are, through knowledge of your skills, your behaviours, aspirations, shortcomings, and attitude to risk; then augment this with good, objective feedback from those who know and trust you.

Next, you’ll need a personal development plan, and, an appetite and motivation to self-improve; in many cases, a professional external coach will add value.

You will also need to build-in some KPM’s; a Manager, who is too devoted to experimentation and inadequately interested in day-to-day performance of their team, is at risk of not delivering.

A Leader, who is too far into the operational detail, is unlikely to become famous for their leadership; instead, such leaders may place their organisation at risk from competitors and market forces.

Can you progress from one to the other? Absolutely – look at my current favourite example, David Abney, who worked his way from the bottom to the top of UPS.

Others have stumbled and struggled with Manager to Leader progression; the worst have gone on to break their organisations.

Still others like Branson and Dyson, are born Leaders, who would struggle with the constraints of day-to-day management or operations.

They are the Leaders who inspire us, and typically amaze us with their vision and level of strategic thought, when we hear them speak – go to TED or Harvard Business Review, for some outstanding material and videos.

In Procurement, there are some fascinating examples – many of the best Procurement leaders have come up through the operational ranks, they have experienced and succeeded in transactional and strategic spend areas, they have developed technology and process, suppliers and markets, they are relationship experts, they understand risk, and they have a deep grasp of an organisation’s strategy and drivers.

Others are woefully average, and just would not/did not inspire me.

I have always looked for the thought-leaders, the innovators, who in addition to their innate and developed people skills, have a real feel for the levers that will create competitive advantage; they instinctively develop an environment and reward structure which enables people in their teams to express themselves and succeed.

Think about it – which and who are you? How does your self-portrait compare with your ambitions, and what’s your plan? Are you happy to be average, or do you want to be remembered for your achievements and your behaviours?