Manager vs Leader: Are You A Trusted Advisor?

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Portrait of a businessman standing with his four colleagues in opposite directionsBarely a year into my journey as a small business owner, I’m learning valuable skills and lessons that enable me to do my job better. Now, I’m not talking about building media lists or drafting messaging documents, but what it means to be a trusted advisor, someone who has the ear of a client, offering counsel to help their business grow.

I’m learning that to be an advisor I need to focus on the client’s needs and not my own; to help them grow will help me grow. I’m learning that I can’t rest on what’s “tried and true” all the time and that I need to undergo constant reinvention; to find new ways to service my client. Most importantly, I’m learning to place the highest value on maintaining the relationship; to prove to my clients that I am here for the long haul, not just for the length of the immediate contract.

The best advisors build relationships, have the ability to earn trust and, of course, give advice effectively. Our profession, it seems, has turned its back on these ideals. Instead of acting as an advisor, many PR agency owners treat their clients (and to a certain extent their employees) as a revolving door.

I have been fortunate enough to work for an agency where the principal owners were trusted advisors and I have also worked in agencies where the senior level executives were not seen as trusted advisors. Both types of employers, in their own way, have given me advice on how I can best be not just an advisor, but also an effective leader.

A leader has to have a clear guiding vision, a passion for what they do – almost borderline obsessive, integrity that inspires trust, curiosity and the willingness to take risks. These traits are both learned and innate, as leadership also involves being reliable as well as consistent. If you only display integrity some of the time, those following your lead – whether clients or employees – won’t trust you.

One of the biggest problems that’s widespread in our industry is how easily we lose focus between managing and leading. For example, I once had a boss who was a great manager but failed at leadership. Neither his clients nor employees put their full trust in him. He lacked key leadership traits and the company suffered because of it. Whereas I had another boss, once, who every employee was motivated to work harder and smarter because they trusted him.

Managers keep the status quo, focus on systems of structure, have short range thinking to accomplish immediate tasks and typically imitate – to do what works. My manager-boss had all of these traits and imparted them onto his managers, so that the firm was proficient in organizing (creating unneeded documents for clients) and imparting control mechanisms (dress codes, rules and consequences regarding minor office niceties).

On the flip side, my leader-boss consistently challenged the status quo, focused on people (whether it was a client or an employee), had long range thinking which would benefit every party involved and was seen as a developer of ideas, not a maintainer of them. He was able to cope with change, to improvise when necessary, but also create alignment between goals and outcomes. Most importantly, for me as an employee, he was able to inspire and motivate, and recognized and then rewarded success. My manager-boss did not.

Managing expectations can show a client or employee how strong of a leader you are. You need to tell the exact truth about what you can –and can’t – do, as well as when you can – and can’t – deliver. A strong leader will ask the questions that trouble them earlier than later, while also focusing on the tougher issues right from the start. Managing expectations is an important step in developing trust and whether you’re a manager or a leader, developing trust is vital to being successful.

While I may be less than a year into running a small consultancy, I’m finding that my previous experiences as an employee and as a college professor are helping me realize how to be a trusted advisor and an effective leader.

So I ask you, what are some of your best practices as a manager or a leader? How have you developed your role as a trusted advisor?

Editor’s Note: This is a slightly revised version of a piece recently posted at Josh’s blog The Sternberg Effect.

Josh SternbergJosh Sternberg is the owner/founder of Sternberg Strategic Communications, a communications firm that merges traditional and digital approaches to help clients understand who they are and how to get their messages to the right audiences. He also sits on an advisory board for Break The Cycle, a non-profit that engages, educates and empowers youth to build lives and communities free from domestic violence. Josh has honed his professional communications skills at a couple of NYC firms. Prior to entering the real world, Josh was an adjunct professor William Paterson University and Montclair State University, teaching several communications courses. On Twitter, Josh is @josh_sternberg.

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  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    Josh, I wasn't able to give this post the time it deserved yesterday, so I'm glad to see it here! I think everyone has experienced what you describe: bosses who are managing and bosses who are leading. It's an awesome function of language that makes it clear that the first kind of boss is truly “managing” in every sense; bosses like that are just doing the bare necessities of business. Leaders make us work harder and better.

    I'm hoping that, while I'm still a junior staff member, I'm doing what I can to learn how to be the right kind of boss.

  • JoshSternberg

    Thanks for the comment! I've no doubts you will be a strong leader and a trusted advisor because you are taking the time to a) learn your trade and b) practice what you've learned. I think a lot of bosses either forget what it's like to be a junior staffer or they don't want to take the time to impart their knowledge. There are some great execs out there, I've been lucky enough to work with a few; who have shown me how to lead, how to build trust and confidence with a client (usually by allowing me to fail – but that's for another post).

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