Product Marty Cagan

Leadership vs. Management

I would argue that two of the most importance competencies in building great product organizations, indeed nearly any significant organizational undertaking, are leadership and management.  Yet so few people actually consider what each of these really means.  Many people just lump the two together.  Some think this is what’s taught in MBA programs (it’s not).  And sadly there are many that have never experienced strong leaders or strong managers.

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about this topic.  What inspired this was that a few months ago I was invited to visit The United States Military Academy at West Point. I’ve been an invited speaker at several of our country’s top universities, including Harvard and Stanford, but I have to say I have never been more impressed with the caliber of the students (cadets) than I was at The Academy.  No matter your politics, I promise you that you would consider these men and women truly extraordinary.  There may be no better place in the US to truly learn leadership and management (in the senses discussed below) than this institution.

I have had the honor of knowing a few graduates of this institution, and I can tell you that if you ever get a chance to hire one, or work with one, or even buy one of them a beer, you should absolutely jump at the chance.

Which leads me to the subject of this article.  Two West Point graduates that are both long-time friends, Marty Abbott and Michael Fisher, just released the second edition of their book The Art of Scalability.  The first edition quickly established itself as the definitive guide to scaling technology and technology organizations, but this second edition takes it to a whole other level.  They’ve spent the years since the first edition working with many of the leading tech teams in the world, and they have included dozens of behind the scenes case studies.   I considered the first edition required reading for engineers, but with this second edition I’ve expanded that recommendation to include product managers and executives.

In the new edition there’s a great essay on the differences between leadership and management, and Marty and Mike have allowed me to include some excepts here:

Leadership serves to inspire people to greater accomplishments, and management exists to motivate them to the objective.

In general, we like to think of management activities as “pushing” activities and leadership as “pulling” activities. Leadership sets a destination and “way-points” toward that destination. Management gets you to that destination. Leadership would be stating “We will never have a scalability related downtime in our systems” and management would be ensuring that it never happens. You absolutely need both and you need to do both well.

Far too often, we get caught up in the notion of a “management style.” We might believe that a person’s “management style” makes them more of a leader or more of a manager. This notion of style is our perception of an individual’s bias toward the tasks that define either leadership or management. We might believe that a person is more operationally focused and is therefore more of a “manager,” or more visionary and therefore more of a “leader.”  Although we all have a set of personality traits and skills that likely make us more comfortable or more capable with one set of activities over the other, there is no reason we can’t get better at both disciplines. Recognizing that they are two distinct disciplines is a step toward isolating and developing both our management and leadership capabilities.

Management is about ensuring that people get performance-oriented feedback in a timely manner and that the feedback includes both praise for great performance and information regarding what they can improve…Management is communicating status early and often and clearly identifying what is on track and where help is needed. Management activities also include removing obstacles or helping the team over or around obstacles where they occur on the path to an objective. Management is as important to scale as it is how you get the most out of an organization. The definition of how something is to be performed is a management responsibility and how something is performed absolutely impacts the scale of organizations, processes, and systems.

Management as it relates to people is about the practice of ensuring that we have the right person, in the right job, at the right time, with the right behaviors. From an organizational perspective, it is about ensuring that the team operates well together, has the proper mix of skills, and has appropriate experiences to be successful … Management means measurement and a failure to measure is a failure to manage. Failing to manage in turn is a guarantee to miss your organizational, process, and systems scalability objectives as without management, no one is ensuring that you are doing the things you need to do in the timeframe required.

Leadership has to do with all the pulling activities necessary to be successful in any endeavor. If management is the act of pushing an organization up a hill, leadership is the selection of that hill and then being first up it to encourage your organization to follow.  Leadership is about inspiring people and organizations to be better and hopefully do great things. Leadership is creating a compelling vision that tugs on the heartstrings of employees and “pulls” them to do the right thing for the company. Leadership is creating a mission that helps codify the vision and creating a causal mental roadmap that helps employees understand how what they do creates value… Finally, leadership is about the definition of the goals on the way to an objective. Leadership is important to scale as it not only sets the direction (mission) and destination (vision) but it inspires people and organizations to achieve that destination.

Any initiative lacking leadership (including initiatives meant to increase the scalability of your company), while not doomed to certain failure, will likely only achieve success through pure dumb luck and chance. Great leaders create a culture focused on ensuring success through highly scalable organizations, processes, and products.

If leadership is a promise, management is action. If leadership is a destination, management is the direction. If leadership is inspiration, management is motivation. Leadership pulls and management pushes. Both are necessary to be successful.

I hope this resonates with you as much as it does with me.