Operator, Manager, and Leader | Marshall Shen

Operator, Manager, and Leader

Operator, Manager, and Leader

Any business organization has three people roles: operator, manager, and leader. These three roles are not mutually exclusive but emphasize different mindset and sets of actions. When we think about individual growth in business, it’s essential to keep a mental map on the three roles and intentionally grow based on it.

Although these roles aren’t mutually exclusive, some dependencies of capability exist among them. Being an operator is a necessary but not sufficient condition to be a great manager, and being a great manager is a necessary but not sufficient condition to be a great leader.

Being a great operator means being good at executing and delivering tangible results that directly impact a business. For example, a product designer provides a finalized user experience flow to a new mobile app, or a software engineer deploys a new version of code that includes a new feature of an app. Being good at delivering tangible results means mastering the know-how and the process that can generate business value. It also means that we jive well with the culture that anchors that business.

Being a great manager means being good at directing and aligning multiple operators at the same time. For example, a great engineering manager should provide clear directions to the team on what to work on and why to work on them. A great engineering manager should connect with each of the engineers and help them grow their careers. Being good at directing and aligning means connecting people of different parts of the business, getting them on the same page about the overarching goals of the team, and have them aware of the current progress in achieving those goals.

Being a great leader means being inspirational while down-to-earth, a great leader is someone people are willing to follow for a cause. That cause is well crafted, simple to understand, and relatable to people throughout the organization. Being a leader that others are willing to follow requires unequivocal characters. A great leader exercises and exemplifies these characters and principles daily. Great characters such as honesty, generosity, and empathy are being tested by some of the toughest events in business, sometimes while the whole world is watching.

Being a great operator is necessary to be a great manager because great management requires empathy. For any business or community, people and culture matter the most. And to work with people, a manager must seek to understand the conditions from different perspectives, before working together on a solution. In business, because people problems originate from daily operations, being a great operator themselves gives managers big leverage in understanding the problem and being able to empathize with the person. However, just being a great operator is not sufficient for being a great manager, because a manager can’t act completely as an operator and attempt to solve problems themselves. Such action is micro-managing, and it won’t scale because multiple operators are tackling different problems, and a manager can’t and shouldn’t solve them all. Being a manager also requires a different set of tools, and understanding when to use those tools - when to delegate a task to others, when to follow up on a business dependency, or when not to do something.

Being a great manager is necessary to be a great leader because leadership is rooted in reality. While a leader’s responsibility is to look ahead and see into the future, the vision must connect with reality, and the leader needs to have a clear mental map on how to get there from here. That connection of reality requires a leader to have a clear understanding of how the organization is performing as a system, how its operation aligns with its people and culture, and what are the most imminent challenges for the business. Such knowledge comes from managing an organization and having meaningful exchanges with managers that help break down high-level goals to concrete tasks and objectives.

However, just being a great manager is not sufficient for being a great leader, because leaders need to not only manage but inspire people. Our human nature is to be part of something bigger than ourselves. That nature calls for inspiration, which, in the context of a business, comes from a leader. The manifestation of such inspiration is rooted in the vision of the company, and the characteristics of the leader. A great leader repeatedly paints the vision picture in front of the whole company, and a great leader makes the best decisions possible in tough situations that will impact people on a large scale (e.g., take a company public, lay-off). Being a leader requires a different mindset - to root in reality while thinking ahead and on a large scale while acting in harmony with one’s characters and principles.