by Karissa McKenna and Samir Mehta

Every role we play as humans has certain responsibilities and skills that come with it. And as we all know, each of us plays multiple roles.

In our personal lives, this usually feels natural. We may play the roles of both parent and child, sibling, friend, and more. We lean on what we’ve seen from our upbringing and what we learn from our culture, peers, and partners. Generally, we know which role to play in which situations.

But what about professional lives? Very often, we have a professional qualification or specific area of expertise – engineer, accountant, project manager, doctor, teacher, etc. As our careers progress, we often add or change titles – Specialist, Manager, Leader, Director, Vice President, etc. We have a job description and things to be achieved in the role.

Our work with leaders across the globe over half a century has led us to a seemingly simple, but crucial insight: we must play multiple roles in our professional lives, irrespective of our qualifications or industry. And perhaps the roles most crucial for our long term success are not those on job descriptions, but those needed to make leadership happen in our organizations. The key comes in our ability to play each role, and to choose the right role for the right situation.

There are 4 leadership roles that every professional must navigate and draw upon to be successful:

  • Player
  • Manager
  • Coach
  • Leader

4 Leadership Roles Infographic Center for Creative Leadership

Player – Players are individual contributors who are vital to achieving the goals of an organization. They are the “doers” who create value by making the product or providing the service.

Regardless of our formal role, all of us keep the Player in the mix of roles we need to play to contribute to our organizations. Any time we are focused on our own performance and getting things done ourselves, we are in the player role. Even in the C-suite, there are times where it’s important to “just do it.”

Manager – When you manage people or projects, you need to learn to step back from doing all of the work yourself. A manager is the one responsible for organizing the work, driving efficiency, holding people accountable, and helping get problems solved.

Like the Player, the Manager is focused on performance, but they need to get things done through others. This is all about the mindset shift that we like to call going “from Me to We.” And it’s one of the hardest ones a professional has to make throughout their leadership career.

Coach – While we all know what an individual contributor is, and many of us carry a title with the word manager, the Coach role is just as critical when we want to enable leadership across individuals and teams. While the Player and Manager roles are focused on performance, the Coach is focused on development.

The Coach role is not about solving the problems, it’s about helping people get out of their own way so they can become better problem solvers. Coaches are trying to bring the best out in people, trying to get people to activate their strengths. They listen, ask powerful questions, and help grow capabilities over time.

Leader – Management is about doing things right, but leadership is about doing the right thing. Regardless of job title, when you act in the Leader role, you see the big picture and connect the dots – for yourself and others. Like the Coach, the Leader is about development overtime. But they are not just developing individual capabilities, they are looking at the whole system.

They are influencing others and taking actions to develop the collective capacity for direction, alignment, and commitment (DAC). At CCL, we know that when there’s shared DAC, leadership is happening.

When to Play Each of These Leadership Roles

At every stage of your career, you’ll be required to play each of these leadership roles, but what we tend to see is that the ideal ratio changes as you move through different levels of leadership. As we’ve worked with leaders around the globe, we’ve found that there are some predictable shifts in the amount of time you’ll need to spend in each role in order to be most successful.

While the ideal ratio varies a little from one industry to another, and from more matrixed organizations to more traditional ones, what we tend to see looks like this:

Pie charts showing time split of 4 leadership roles

Pause for a moment to consider your current professional responsibilities.

  • How do you currently divide your time between these 4 leadership roles?
  • How comfortable and capable do you feel in each role?
  • What role might you need to play more or less frequently to be even more successful?

Shifting Into a New Leadership Role

Our work with leaders at all levels globally has also shown us that the hardest transition to make is from the role of Individual contributor to the role of manager, leading people or projects.

The graph above is a great way to see why that jump into management tends to be so hard. Individual contributors are typically in the role of Player about 90% of the time. When they’re asked to be responsible for the work of others, they must make a significant shift in their mindsets, skillsets, and toolsets in order to play the other roles far more often and more skillfully. Many early leaders fail to make that shift successfully.

According to some studies, as many as 50% of new leaders are ineffective in their roles, and 40% of new leaders fail within the first 18 months. This carries a huge cost for organizations. But luckily, there are ways to support new managers of people and projects that can shift the odds in their favor.

6 Shifts to Attain Success for New Managers

For those who want to take on expanded responsibility, certain shifts are required in order to grow and lead across each of the 4 roles. Our research has identified 6 crucial shifts that new leaders –or leaders of any level – must make in order to be successful:

  1. Mindset: You’re leading others now, not just yourself, so shift your mindset. Gather resources on how to do this effectively. Remember that a growth mindset is crucial in every new role.
  2. Relationships: You’ll want to shift from the role of “friend” to the role of “boss” when at work.  This means being able to have performance conversations that help others own their own impact.
  3. Attitude: You’ll need to delegate the work and not try to do it all yourself anymore.
  4. Perspective: You’ll want to shift your view to be sure you’re seeing the bigger picture.
  5. Focus: You’ll want to shift your focus to what’s right for the organization, not what’s easy or self-serving.
  6. Skillset: You’ll want to shift your skills to manage your team effectively. There are 6 critical skills frontline leaders need to develop.

Learning new mindsets and skillsets are like any other pursuit. You wouldn’t want to teach yourself to skydive without expert instruction.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

As you and your team play each of the 4 leadership roles and strive to move your organization forward, we’re here to help. We’ve innovated several solutions to address the different challenges that new leaders face:

  • For frontline managers of people and projects and high potentials looking to lead at the next level – we’ve developed the Maximizing Your Leadership Potential program. This course teaches participants the mindsets and skillsets needed to play each of the 4 roles of leadership well. We use guided practice and experiential learning facilitated by our world-class faculty and coaches to ensure the learning goes deep and that leaders leave ready to succeed.
  • For first-level managers – or anyone looking to move into a first-level manager role – our virtual Frontline Leader Impact course offers world-class leadership training in a convenient, self-paced format.
  • Finally, for leaders who are very new to leading others, or getting ready to step into such a role, we offer CCL Boost™ – an online tool that equips new managers with the leadership skills, confidence, and support needed to effectively transition into a management role.

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