Guest Essay

From Work Manager to People Leader

Being a people leader is not the same as managing work. It’s a completely different career path that requires a complete rethinking of your day-to-day.

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When I first became a team lead at Envato there had never been anyone in my role before, the team had never existed and while the team was going to have three people on it eventually, to start, it was just me.

It was my first time leading a team of other paid people (I’d previously led teams of volunteers) and I was quite nervous. I’d worked with an intern in a previous role/organization and it didn’t go the way I hoped and left me feeling like people management might not be something I could do, let alone do well at.

For almost seven months I was alone managing the outcomes for a team that was supposed to be three but only had one. You can imagine what my day-to-day was like. It was delivery focused and there was barely any time left over to breathe. 

So, when my team finally grew, I developed a view of leadership that was focused almost exclusively on production. Output was the measure of success and it was soul-draining. Our meetings were about increasing efficiency, managing capacity and delivering something (anything!) of value in the sprint.

My self-worth and value as a manager became tied to what we could accomplish and I was burning myself and the team out trying to hit targets. That focus on output led to some inevitable consequences. My team felt micro-managed, disconnected and unable to have meaningful or challenging conversations with me. 

After a year, we were stuck and if we didn’t make changes soon we’d all move on in one way or another. Organizationally, we were stuck too. Since I’d been at Envato, we’d gone from peak employee satisfaction and engagement to a steadily reducing score in survey after survey.

As an organization, we had to adjust our view of management and make the transition from task managers to people leaders. We had to develop people leadership as a discipline and change our view of what our work product was.


Managing Work Is Different Than Leading People

The first thing I had to learn was that leading people is not the same thing as managing work. Because I was so accustomed to doing all the work, when I started to have others on the team, I was adding more work to our team rather than giving up the work that I was doing. 

I was acting as a doer with some work prioritization for others on top. The result was that managing my team was something I had little capacity for and was more of an afterthought than anything intentional. I hadn’t accepted that I had moved from doing to leading and that my primary role was to ensure my team had the information and resources they needed to do the work I had been doing.

Looking back now it seems obvious but I think this is one of the easiest and earliest traps that people in management roles can fall into. We are so accustomed to doing the work that we think that we need to keep our output the same when making the transition to people leaders. 

If you are planning on continuing to do all the work you did before you were a people leader, when are you going to meet with your team to discuss priorities? When are you going to have one-on-ones with your team? When are you going to meet with other teams to align on priorities? When are you going to define the strategy and OKRs for your team? When are you going to talk about your direct reports’ career goals? When are you going to plan the budget? When are you going to unblock your team who are stuck because of something they’re waiting on from another team?

See what I mean? Being a people leader is not the same as managing work. It’s a completely different career path that requires a complete rethinking of your day-to-day.

Today, when I manage a team, I’m looking to understand what it is my team is responsible for, what the business expects from them and how I can help them grow and deliver meaningful results without losing their souls.

Leading People Demands Intentionality

It is possible to have a clear sense of purpose, ownership and accountability for your work and a growth path all at the same time. Getting there requires a people leader who looks at their role not as something that happens to them but as something they are intentionally creating.

People leadership doesn’t just happen because you have a likeable personality, show up to one-on-ones and can approve time off requests. It takes a commitment to an extremely high level of intentionality. Knowing what tasks your direct reports are working on each day must become secondary to the strategic path you are charting, the culture you are creating and the plan you are co-creating with each individual on your team.

That’s not to say tasks and results aren’t important. But I believe they are the culmination of your effort at cultivating great people who know what’s expected of them, have the resources and information to execute and are empowered to map their own path to delivery (this is a strong opinion, loosely held; feel free to challenge it). 

One of the things we did a lot of in our leadership training at Envato was role-play scenarios we might encounter with our direct reports. I cannot begin to tell you how valuable it was to plan, play and process with other leaders. What you soon discover is that without proactive planning, you are not prepared for the conversations you want to have with your direct reports. 

For example, if you are new to the team as the people leader, have you put any thought or consideration into your timeline for moving from one-to-one conversations about the work to conversations about plans and goals? 

As an aside, Simon Dowling is a great resource for practical coaching and training for leaders, I highly recommend checking his organization out.

Being intentional in people leadership means you probably have to invest as much time in the planning process as you do in the execution. Take your one-on-ones for example, how much prep time do you put into these? Are you creating an agenda for these times? Are you using a framework that balances the short term and the long term? Are you providing consistent and valuable feedback? Are you having career conversations?


People Leaders Have Different Work Product

The amount of effort required to be a people leader and be intentional about our interactions with our direct reports means that we have to change our view of what our work product is. We cannot do it all and we cannot expect that what we personally delivered when we were team members will be the same when we’re people leaders.

I recently did a stint as the Marketing Principal at LearnDash (a StellarWP brand) and in my first week there I spent over 80% of my time in meetings. As someone who is accustomed to a bit more balance than that, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough because I had nothing to really show for my time.

But, when I reflected on what I was doing, I was reminded that as a people leader, my output is not about what I can produce myself but on my ability to unlock and unblock for my team. Because I was creating strategy, sitting in on those meetings and representing our team and perspective, that meant the rest of the team was freed up to do what only they can do and move closer toward our goal. 

Because more of our time is invested in strategy, alignment and information sharing, as people leaders we need to be okay with co-owning the work our direct reports do. Their successful completion of a task or result from an initiative is something that we can celebrate as our impact too. 

We’re not taking credit for their work we’re looking at the process of how they achieved their success as our work product. Hopefully, we’re also taking the time to recognize the impact of our direct reports too. 

People Leadership Is A Process

More than anything, people leadership is a process. There won’t be a magic switch that takes you from a task manager to a people leader. It’s a series of decisions that move you closer to or further from this way of leading your team. 

I am still figuring it out. I naturally lean toward tasks rather than people so I have to be extra intentional and devote additional energy to get the balance right. Sometimes I get it right, a lot of times I get it wrong and have to learn some lessons for next time. 

Also, not everyone is going to have access to the kind of organizational and leadership development resources that large companies like Envato, StellarWP, GoDaddy or Automattic have. That’s okay, you don’t need to be at a big company to start thinking this way.

Your balance between task management and people leadership might look different depending on the size of your team and your business but if your executive team is committed to excellence in people leadership, you can do it. 

My recommendation is to start by connecting with other leaders in places like Ciircles, Post Status or Agency Mavericks and find like-minded leaders to mastermind with.

I’m around in both Post Status and Agency Mavericks and would love to hang out and talk about these kinds of things. Feel free to reach out or connect with me on all the socials too.

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James Giroux is the Director of Brand & Product Marketing at StellarWP and CEO at Groundwork. James' mission is to help people connect creativity with purpose.

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