Agencies take great liberties in defining these roles but for the purposes of this article, we’re talking about an individual acting as a buffer between a team and the next level of stakeholders. While we’re not going to debate the merits of this position, or lack-thereof in this piece; it’s worth mentioning that most digital teams benefit greatly from having someone deal with the clients and bosses, allowing for an overall improved team performance.

Bad managers can cost you a business opportunity, entire projects and even worse, your own team. According to Gallup, managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores across business units. Leaving performance metrics aside, let’s look at something I feel is overlooked way too often – the human component.

A Boss and a Leader

Most team leaders will avoid the word like it’s the plague and rightfully so. In recent memory, we’ve redefined the word “boss” as someone who’s got a bottomless sack of things for you to do in one hand and a whip in the other. In this context, however, a boss is simply someone to whom you report.

Regardless of how you choose to call this position of authority, this nuance of a team member-team leader relationship has to exist in order to create accountability. I know we love to think of ourselves as a wonderful group of responsible individuals but the truth is, there are very few people out there who can manage themselves and do their best simply because it’s the right thing to do.

I’ve found that the terms boss and leader are often used interchangeably, with leader sneaking into the conversations whenever we don’t like the perceived implications of the word boss.  Even thought they both imply a position of seniority, they are by no means synonyms.

A boss will be satisfied if you achieve the bare minimum but a leader is someone who inspires you, who works side by side with you and in doing so, finds ways of motivating the entire team to always push for the best results. Simply put,  boss will not push a deadline back to squeeze in your innovative idea but a leader with fight tooth and claw for it and teach you to pitch it too.

A Humble Teacher

People in leadership positions tend to hide the things they’re not very knowledgeable about to the point that they talk as if they’re experts in just about every topic. Save the sales pitches for the clients because competent professionals will be able to tell how far your skills stretch within two seconds flat. If they can’t tell how good you are in their own industries; fire them! I mean it, you’ve hired a bunch of salesmen and that is all you’ve done.

On the other side of the spectrum we’ve got those who are so insecure about their position they simply refuse to share what they know with their own people. In the simplest of analogies, not training your team is the equivalent of asking them to paint a masterpiece without the most basic understanding of colours. Not training with your team means you’ll soon be investing hours in mixing pigments because you’ve got no idea you can get the shades you want ready-made.

We all know that none of us are all-knowing. Being in a leadership position doesn’t negate this very basic fact. Owning up to it, perfecting one’s skills constantly will not only improve one’s individual performance but will act as an incentive for those who look up to you.

Adaptable but Principled

There is no one size fits all method when it comes to managing people. While HR might try to match people who play well together, implementing a single policy or technique across the board cancels out individual traits and pretends all people in company A are carbon copies of an ideal employee. I don’t know about you, but I’m having a really hard time imagining a more ridiculous assessment.

There’s a lot of back and forth these days about individuality and people’s right to express their personalities as creatively as they want and the trend, for lack of a better word, is slowly but surely sipping into the working place. Some of the top companies to work for are not only encouraging their own employees to express themselves but are actively developing their own brand personalities, connecting on an emotional level with their customers and employees alike.

Technologies, methods and people change at a head-spinning pace and an adaptable approach to leadership is essential if you’re to keep up with the industry and those who work in it. This, however, doesn’t mean one has to become pliable to the point of indulging everyone’s whims. Every company, every department and every team has to strike a perfect balance between a set of principles that are permanent, group-defining and non-negotiable, and set of traits and policies you’re constantly adapting to ensure a better working environment.

Honest and Reserved

Honesty isn’t a trait you’ll come across often in business. On one hand, employees and managers adhere to the belief that saying no is right up there with shooting yourself in the foot and on the other, business partners think that telling the truth is worse than beautifying it. Aside from the cosmetic effect of applying some decency and empathy to whatever you say and do, a business relationship is just as dependent on honesty and clarity as any other.

Dishonesty in managers can lead to disastrous consequences both for the team and for the project, whether we’re talking about keeping things from people or down-right lying. Most lie fearing they’ll lose the client or to save their asses. Whichever the case, it might work a hand-full of times but, eventually, teams lacking all the information will perform poorly and the clients you’ve promised things you can’t deliver will begin to call you out on it.

Don’t over-share; nobody cares about how wonderful you were in a meeting unless it directly impacts their lives but don’t keep your team on an arbitrary need to know basis you shift and redefine depending what you decide they need to know to deliver each stage of the project.

Reliable yet Unpredictable

Most of all, managers have to be reliable both from clients’ and the team’s point of view. Don’t give people the run-around and don’t ignore them when they ask for your help; eventually they’ll stop asking and operate based on what you’ve provided them thus far and work done on breadcrumbs of information won’t ever be worth more than that – breadcrumbs.

A rare but amazing quality great managers have is the power to be surprising. People notice and remember random acts of kindness and even the simple gesture of organizing a last minute team outing in a fun venue can boost engagement and become a great team building exercise. Yes, you might get people who are disinterested, but you will have built a core team you, yourself can rely on.

The Bottom Line

Being a good manager is about delivering better results than expected but great leaders inspire people to become better versions of themselves, turning a job from a thing you do for a monthly salary into an environment in which people are actively engaged and are free to deliver real innovation.

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