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Jul 16, 2012

Management Is Not Leadership

You can lead folks or you can manage them, but you cannot do both. Leadership is empowering while management is, well, quite the opposite. By Andy Rutledge

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“The technology to successfully run and manage remote teams has never been better. […] So stop whining, spend a day to get up to speed on remote working practices, and hire outside of your commuter zone.”

David Heinemeier Hansson,
from Stop whining and start hiring remote workers

No. With all due respect to David Heinemeier Hansson, I have no use for workers. If you're reading this article it is likely that you don't, either. My business partner Angela and I hire and work with professionals, not task-doing workers. What's more, I don't manage anyone, teams or individuals. So any number of readily available, easy-to-use communication apps are of no use in what I'm actually required to do: lead.

In fairness, David's post on the 37signals blog has some good advice…for owners of top-down enterprises that employ technical workers who must be managed. But if you run a design studio or agency with a healthy culture, responsibility demands you ignore David's hiring advice. What works for 37signals will not necessarily work for you. I suggest in fact that if it does, something is very very wrong with what you're doing.

To Manage or To Lead

You can lead men or you can manage them, but you cannot do both. Leadership is empowering while management is, well, quite the opposite. Workers, as David rightly points out, must be managed. They must be kept on task, must be told what to do. Since none have any authority, their petty squabbles must be arbitrated and their output quality regulated. It's important to the machine that the cogs stay in their respective places and keep turning according to a centrally planned schedule.

Professionals, on the other hand, cannot be managed. To manage professionals is to steal their professionalism. Pros must have authority and autonomy. Pros manage themselves, but they must be led. As an agency/studio owner or principal, you can't afford to be a manager. You, my friend, are supposed to be a leader.

Remote Control Malfunction

Just as David explains in his post, workers can indeed be managed remotely. Professionals, however, cannot be led remotely. This is especially true of those who are hired remotely. As an employer of professionals, and a leader, you have a responsibility to be more concerned with the kind of relationship your staff members need to have with you than with the kind of relationship you might otherwise believe you need to have with them.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. In May, 2010 I wrote an article for “Applied Arts” magazine in which I described the distinctions between the agency as bureaucracy and agency as academy. It referenced very clearly the results of employing the concepts of workers and professionals. I hope you may take the time to read this short article, as it relates directly to this issue of leading your professional staff. What logically follows from that thesis is that in order for you to lead your professional (or budding professional) staff in the right direction they must be with you along the way, and you with them. They must be privy to your daily behavior, to observe your example, to listen in on or participate in important discussions. Else, they're not led at all, but merely employed (used).

What I'm talking about here is that the fullness of what you need to share with those you lead cannot be conveyed in remote, planned or deliberate electronic interactions. The most important benefits of leadership and most important learning opportunities are shared and occur fleetingly and extemporaneously. In many cases these features and opportunities are, by most appearances, the least of events during the day, but they're often the most valuable and have the most impact.

None of this is possible when your staff is remote. In this regard, remote staff members are left on their own and excluded from the most important interactions and opportunities for growth and development—theirs and your studio's. Experience facilitates learning and growth, but only shared experience creates cohesion and community (shared values). What you share with your staff is important, but no more so than what they share with you and with each other. I'm talking about your studio's brand here.

Leadership and Your Brand

In all the ways that matter, your studio's brand is not you, but rather those whom you employ. You don't do most of the project strategy and production. They do. You don't do most of the interacting with clients. They do. You had better be leading them by example toward investment in your values and vision or you don't and won't have much of a brand. And if you are not with your team you may rest assured that your team is not with you in all the ways that matter.

This shared-via-proximity experience is how you're able to express and model the fullness of your values; your company's values. It's also how you help them grow and learn what you need them to learn. It's how the people you hire go from being who they are that day to growing beyond their earlier expectations and representing your studio and your brand in a meaningful way.

It is in this shared process that your studio's values become something other than rumor and gossip to become concrete and find adoption…or where staff members find that they cannot commit to them and rightly leave for a more appropriate environment. It follows then that if you're not directly leading them, you're not leading your enterprise anywhere. In fact you're letting it rot from the inside due to deliberate neglect.

As a design professional, you know that context matters. The context of the 37signals blog post was for top-down, factory-like enterprises where the one or the group at the top is the brand. This is the sort of “agency as bureaucracy” where workers are utilized as technicians and must be managed. Of course you'd have to manage such an enterprise because you can't lead a top-down enterprise…because you can't lead from the “top.”

A leader leads from the front, in the company of his men and women, or not at all.

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