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Jennie Wong: Shedding light on the language of leadership

By Jennie Wong
Guest columnist
Jennie Wong
Jennie Wong, Ph.D., is a nationally syndicated columnist, executive coach, and the creator of the product quiz website www.ABorC.com.

A client recently asked me about the difference between management and leadership. And that’s when it hit me. Many of us lack a precise language for our most important job – working with others.

Some might say it’s just a matter of preference or semantics, but I think the confusion can prevent business owners and managers from improving in these critical skills. So in the interest of clarity, I humbly offer the following lexicon.

Supervision: Supervisory work involves communicating tasks and expectations, training and demonstration, checking on task completion and quality, and providing both positive and constructive feedback, including re-training as necessary. It doesn’t matter if you are checking on the cleanliness of a hotel sink, debugging a junior software developer’s code or doing a postmortem on a billion-dollar merger – these are all acts of supervision.

One of the issues that I see among fledgling entrepreneurs and managers is that they think of supervision as low-level work that is beneath them. This couldn’t be further from the truth. These foundational acts of teaching, telling and accountability are the core work. The terms to come may provide the icing, but supervision is the cake.

Management: Management is all about planning and decision-making based on a given objective, or as Merriam-Webster puts it, “judicious use of means to accomplish an end.” Those means include employees and contractors, strategic alliances, owned or leased equipment, capital and credit, and even space and square footage.

The key question of management is, “How?” How will we reduce labor costs by 10 percent? How can we prepare for our peak season? How can we shave a minute off our average wait time? These are important questions; the work of figuring out and implementing answers is the unheralded part of management.

Leadership: If supervision points people to what they need to do and management concerns the how of things, then leadership is all about the why. Why does your business exist? Why do customers buy from you instead of your competitor down the street? Why does the company logo sport three colors instead of a single shade?

Sometimes “why” questions such as these can only be answered by a company’s founder(s). And in companies where the original entrepreneur is no longer involved, whoever has the authority and power to change one of those answers is the true leader of the company.

Leadership in this sense is focused on mission, vision and values, because it is these things that provide the why for a company’s strategic direction.

Putting it all together

Here’s the kicker. These three jobs may all be done by the same person. In a small business, they often are. And for a solo entrepreneur, they have to be – even if the only person you’re supervising is yourself.

As a business owner, you may spend the most time on leadership in the early days, before there’s even anyone to lead. When you’re just starting out, you’re answering the big questions of why this service or product, and why these customers, as well as creating a vision of what you want your business to become – the biggest florist, the cheapest florist or the fastest florist in town.

As your business becomes more established, you’ll have more resources to manage and more (self-assigned) objectives to accomplish. How will you manage the advertising budget to increase sales?

And once other people are involved, they’ll need to be supervised (which, incidentally, is not the same as micromanaging).

Supervision, management and leadership are all important jobs. Yes, “manager” usually outranks “supervisor” as job titles go. But no matter whether your business card says director, vice-president or queen of the known universe, these three jobs encompass the work that needs to be done.

So ask yourself: Where do you naturally excel, and where do you need to sharpen your skills? Does your business need you to spend more time on what, how or why?

Jennie Wong, Ph.D., is a Charlotte-based executive coach and the founder of www.CartCentric.com, a friend-sourcing tool for online shopping.
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