Lead Management, Don’t Manage Leaders

Professor Erik Hiep takes a look at the difference between management and leadership, considering how both qualities are needed to deal with today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive business environment.

We are all used to hearing about the importance of management and leadership to guide teams through volatility. There is no denying that both competencies are extremely valuable, but it is crucial to understand that they are completely different, and people who are able to excel in both are a rare breed. Thus, in most circumstances, you should not want a leader to manage or expect a manager to be an inspirational leader.

Because more often than not, great leaders do not have the skills (nor ambition to learn) how to manage people or teams, and top managers tend to lack inspirational qualities, insights, or the vision to drive the organization forward. This issue is present not only in startups or runner-ups, but also in larger companies that need to adapt to their fast-changing environment. In a VUCA world, it is the leaders who create trust, motivation, and inspiration with a defined and clear vision, and the managers who are entrusted with the complexity of everyday business, who must make the smart and sometimes tough decisions. Both leaders and managers are essential to the success of a business and both roles must be visible and accessible, always in “action mode,” listening to their teams and employees and serving as an example for others throughout the company.

Clarity is crucial

Olav Cuiper, Executive Vice President and Head of EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa) of Reinsurance Group of America (RGA), is one of those leaders who understands that, particularly in times of volatility, it is crucial that you provide clarity as a leader.

Just before the COVID pandemic, Cuiper had already started working on a vision for RGA EMEA on how to secure future long-term growth. RGA is one of the leading global providers of life reinsurance and financial solutions, but even when the results remained positive, Cuiper was convinced that things needed to be sharpened – the company needed to evolve faster and in line with the business environment. He sensed the risk of complacency.

With his leadership team, Cuiper created a new Strategic Grid, which is a program of key strategic priorities around a clear regional vision in order to stay relevant in the coming five to 10 years. In a recent conversation, he explained that: “We knew where to go. To get there, it was paramount that we involved all the people in our company. That was not going to be easy because of two aspects. The first one is that we have a very diverse company in offices in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South Africa. The second aspect was that the feeling of urgency was not felt yet. After all, we were doing good, so why change? Here the pandemic worked in our favor. It paved the way for resetting our mindset, since we all learned during 2020 that changes were not only constant but also accelerating.”

When the pandemic changed the working environment completely, Cuiper had to focus on making sure that every single member of the company understood the company’s purpose and goals, and how to get there. He explained that connecting with people and teams is crucial for leaders, “It starts with designing a strategy together that provides clarity and direction. Then we really had to connect the global, regional and local teams. Since I could not travel and could not meet my staff in the local offices in person, we had to create a new way of communicating. The first thing I did was to make sure to keep as visible and present as I could be, online and through internal media.”

Cuiper understands that empathy is key when messaging employees, besides acknowledging the work and living situation changes due to the pandemic. “Like myself, most of them were working from home, all day talking to their computer, in confinement. I advised people to take a break, take a walk in the park, get or stay fit, read a book or start on mindfulness.”

Decision making

Cuiper and his team emphasized speed in decision making and made important organizational changes and to push things forward and secure strategic alignment. “We made sure that we showed trust in our decisions. The continuing good results were helpful, but we especially emphasized that we had great confidence in our people’s capabilities and really made a point in delegating decisions to the local teams.”

A good leader can choose how long is necessary for a well-thought decision to be made.

Cuiper’s personal strategy is to delegate decision making whenever possible. “I’m not insecure or into the habit of dodging my responsibilities. I simply trust the professionals in my teams to make the best decisions. They often have more in-depth information and hands-on feel for the context.”

This attitude gives leaders like Cuiper more room to focus on the bigger picture and this is particularly important in times of uncertainty, when a host of fluctuating variables can cloud judgement. Being able to rely on the right manager to make the right decision is key, of course, and when done well it enables those managers to be the ones to help their teams reach organizational goals while preventing burnout or demotivation.

Whilst intrinsically linked to leadership, management requires a slightly different skill set including knowing when to multi-task, when to delegate, and how to prioritize. The pandemic has brought a plethora of new problems for teams and leaders must quickly identify the issues and then create a strategy for the managers to then tackle these issues. When prioritizing, a good leader can choose how long is necessary for a well-thought decision to be made before falling behind the rest of the world.

The importance of this choice is magnified by what Cuiper refers to as ‘big decisions.’ “When in a restaurant, do you choose fish or meat for your main course? That’s quite an easy decision, because there is no real lasting impact. Nevertheless, you see people hesitating about this choice like it’s a matter of life and death. You probably think that I’m exaggerating, but it’s to make you understand that once in a while there are decisions that you really need to prepare for. These are the decisions that define success or shape your destiny. Before making these ‘big’ decisions, make sure that you are fit and balanced. And avoid being frustrated or angry, or even worse: being driven by fear. Only in this balanced state do you use your time to gather the information you need and think it over. And do not waste it.”

It is true that we find ourselves living in complex times, with the pandemic being blamed for much of this, but the reality is that the business world has long been volatile and disruptive. This uncertainty has made it necessary for individuals to really play to their strengths. According to Cuiper, this should be an aspiration for all of us: “Everybody in his or her own job needs to figure out what specific talent makes them win. Either in management or leadership, it does not really matter. What is the set of unique, special and powerful qualities that make you stand out and win? These qualities are what I want people to focus on and bring forward with greater frequency and attention. That is how you win in your own way and on your own terms.”


© IE Insights.


Sign up for our Newsletter

Newsletter Subscription