How To Transition From Manager To Leader

Moving from management into a leadership role can be challenging. Learning new skills and strategies is essential to make a success of the transition.


The question of what makes a good leader is fiercely debated. Ask 10 different people and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. Clearly though, the ability to lead relies on having certain key skills and characteristics. But how do these differ from those of managers?

As you climb the corporate ladder, here’s how to prepare for your new role to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Leadership and management skills: what’s the difference?

Leadership and management skills: what’s the difference?

The roles of manager and leader are closely linked, but they’re not the same. While both are necessary for teams to succeed, they take a different approach to achieving goals.

Management is about improving operational performance and productivity. Leadership is more about creating an environment where people can see what’s possible and maximize their potential. Or, as American leadership guru Warren Bennis put it: “The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.”

What’s more, being a good manager won’t necessarily make you a good leader. In fact, only 10% of people are natural leaders. And when you consider that 40-50% of new leaders fail within the first 18 months, it’s safe to say that taking the step up can be challenging. It may even require a complete shift in mindset.

In the leader vs manager debate, these are some of the key differences between the two:

Managers instruct, leaders inspire

Managers are detail-focused, organized and efficient. They make sure tasks are completed on time and on budget.

Leaders, on the other hand, encourage team members to go above and beyond what’s expected of them without telling them what to do. They’re often charismatic, energetic and passionate, which makes people want to follow them.

Managers control, leaders empower

Managers tend to be hands-on. They will keep control over their teams and hold regular meetings to review projects and discuss expectations.

Leaders don’t micromanage. They believe in empowering their teams, making them accountable and giving them the space to work. They still oversee everything but equip employees with the resources and knowledge they need to cultivate their own success.

Managers focus on processes, leaders focus on people

Managers allocate resources to tasks to make sure employees’ daily workload contributes to the company’s overall objectives.

Good leaders give team members a sense of purpose and belonging which, in turn, can increase productivity and job satisfaction. Happy employees stick around – which means less time and money spent on hiring and training new employees.

Managers have short-term targets, leaders have long-term vision

Managers are driven by day-to-day departmental goals that don’t necessarily align with one another in the long run. Their focus is stability and maintaining the status quo.

Leaders are visionaries. They advocate change and welcome fresh ideas. For them, targets are stepping stones to reaching a wider company goal. Think of it like this – leaders see a forest, managers see individual trees.

First steps for going from manager to leader

First steps for going from manager to leader

With a little careful planning, the transition to leader doesn’t have to overwhelm you. Follow these steps to prepare yourself for your new leadership role:

Assess your strengths and weaknesses

Self-reflection isn’t easy but it is important. As well as evaluating your best qualities, identify the gaps in your knowledge and pinpoint areas where you can improve. You can address these shortfalls by accessing leadership training courses or mentoring schemes for new leaders.

The best leaders are continually learning and gathering feedback. They’re passionate about self-improvement to expand their skills and knowledge.

Listen, observe and reflect

It can be tempting to jump in feet first and make changes straight away to show your decisiveness, but one of the biggest mistakes first-time leaders make is trying to do too much too soon. Spend time observing, listening and learning about your organization and employees.

Even if you’ve been with the company a long time, you’ll need to get used to looking at things from a different perspective. As you develop as a leader and gain more experience, you can then put your ideas into practice with more confidence that they’ll succeed.

Understand your leadership style

What kind of a leader do you want to be? More of a coach than an autocrat? A voice for change? Someone who involves employees in the decision-making process?

Decide which leadership style is the best fit for you, your team and your company culture, and bring it to the everyday. Consistency is one of the key attributes of any leader as it projects an air of calmness and lets people know where they stand with you.

Make a plan and measure success

One way to stay focused on being a good team leader is by developing a plan that aligns with your team’s goals and values. With studies showing that only 48% of employees view their company’s leadership as ‘high quality’, it’s essential to find better ways of doing things, get regular feedback from staff and plan for smooth leadership succession.

Part of the process involves finding a way to track the progress of your plan to make sure it’s taking you in the right direction. As well as having metrics for things like profit margins and staff turnover, create them for less obvious things like employee engagement and empowerment. You can use various tools such as staff surveys and focus groups for this.

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7 leadership skills to learn

7 leadership skills to learn

According to Deloitte’s 2023 Global Human Capital Trends report, 94% of executives believe that leadership development is critical for the success of their organizations. Yet only 23% think their leaders have the necessary skills to lead in today’s ‘boundaryless’ world.

As you move into leadership from management, there are some key skills you’ll need to learn. These include:

1. Thinking strategically

One of the skills that really sets a leader apart from a manager is the ability to think strategically. Put simply, you’ll need to have a plan for the long-term and figure out the best ways to achieve your goals.

To give yourself the best chance of success, get to know your market inside out and get good at analyzing data, anticipating problems and reacting quickly to change.

2. Influencing and diplomacy

Great leaders have a talent for persuading and influencing others and are quick to build a rapport with people from all walks of life. This requires a high level of emotional intelligence, which is necessary to get people on-side, including external stakeholders you may not have dealt with before. You’ll need to get everyone pulling in the same direction.

The best leaders are good listeners and welcome other points of view. But they’re also not afraid to be assertive when they need to.

3. Big picture thinking

When starting a new leadership role, it can be all too easy to get caught up in day-to-day tasks you oversaw as a manager. But you’ll need to shift your focus to the bigger picture and understand the organization as a whole.

It’s your responsibility to drive the overall company vision and set the tone for company culture. The key is getting buy-in from your teams so it becomes a shared vision. The more you show how each individual effort makes a difference, the more a team grows and flourishes.

4. Improving communication

While communication skills are important for everyone, leaders rely on them even more. You have to be able to communicate at every level and in different situations, whether you’re attending a high-level board meeting or holding a casual conversation at the water cooler.

Leading remote teams presents a different set of challenges, as it’s harder to read the room. Use virtual town halls to share company updates and allow people to ask questions. Being transparent is essential to build trust with your employees, and make them comfortable opening up to you.

5. Learning to delegate

One of the key team leader skills you’ll need to master is the art of delegation. While it can be difficult learning to let go of control, it’s important to give other team members responsibility to help them grow and stay motivated. After all, every great leader has a group of talented people around them that they can rely on.

Allowing employees to take on new projects will also free up time in your busy schedule to focus on more mission-critical tasks.

6. Taking overall responsibility

The buck stops with you. Being in charge means that whatever happens in your organization rests on your shoulders. By all means, bask in the glory when things go well but, equally, be prepared to take responsibility and avoid playing the blame game when things don’t go to plan.

In the Deloitte report, 33% of participants said lack of accountability for outcomes was a barrier to leaders’ ability to drive value for their organization.

7. Becoming a role model

You’ll need to get comfortable with being in the spotlight. As a first-time leader, you might be surprised by how much attention people pay to what you say and do, and how you behave.

When you’re leading teams, it’s imperative you set a good example, otherwise your people won’t trust and respect you. Demonstrating qualities such as integrity, positivity, empathy and confidence can earn you that respect. Employees want a boss with strong core values who will bring out the best in them – both on a professional and personal level.

While the journey from manager to leader might be beset with challenges, it can also be very rewarding and exciting. If employees are genuinely inspired by your ideas and values, they will not only perform well in good times but also stand by you when the going gets tough.

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