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Manager vs Leader: Are You A Trusted Advisor?

Barely 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 been unfortunate to work for an agency where the principal was anything but a trusted advisor. Both 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 a horrible leader. No one – clients and employees – trusted him. He lacked all the traits of a leader and his company suffered because of the deficiency of leadership. 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 agendas/next steps documents for clients during a weekly phone call that didn’t work or make sense) and imparting controlling mechanisms (unwarranted dress codes, ridiculous rules/consequences if you were 5 minutes late to work).

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?


About joshsternberg

Josh Sternberg is the content strategist for The Washington Post. Prior to that he was the media reporter for Digiday. Additional bylines include: The Atlantic, The Awl, Pacific Standard, Mashable, Huffington Post, Mediaite.


2 thoughts on “Manager vs Leader: Are You A Trusted Advisor?

  1. Fantastic post Josh. Points all so true – I'm at a loss of anything to add that wouldn't be simply redundant. Congrats on thinking beyond the next 5 seconds for yourself, your company, and your (future) staff.

    Posted by PR Cog | January 11, 2010, 4:56 pm
  2. Great post, Josh – especially noting that difficult questions should be explored early, rather than trying to bluff through. In my experience, I've met a few management PR pros who fail to recognize that both their client's and staff success increases his/her own, many who recognize the importance of client success but fail to see how staff empowerment empowers them as well – only a rare few who see the importance of both. Keep writing Josh, these are great posts.

    Posted by john | January 11, 2010, 6:07 pm

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