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Are you a manager or a leader?

Running a business intelligence (BI) project requires an unusual combination of managerial and leadership skills. Unfortunately, few BI managers possess the right blend of these capabilities. There are many reasons why BI projects can go awry, but if you strip away the symptoms, you’ll discover that the cause is a lack of strong management or leadership.

This is not an indictment against BI managers. There is a wide gulf between the skills and traits needed to be a good manager and those needed to be a good leader. And the two skill sets are almost mutually exclusive. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it’s difficult to play both roles at the same time.

Good managers

Good managers are well grounded and pragmatic. They understand the reality of their environment -- its values, goals, politics and limits. They set realistic objectives that acknowledge organizational constraints and dovetail with corporate goals. They define detailed project plans and work with a team to systematically meet those objectives.

Good managers are conservative. They worship process and use a trusted methodology to navigate the vicissitudes of a project life cycle and minimize risk. They would rather be slow and steady than risk the glory of swift, but uncertain, success.

Good managers excel at hiring, coordinating and directing a team. They hire competent workers in various roles. They run efficient, effective meetings and continuously update project plans to accommodate change requests. They quickly troubleshoot, resolve or de-escalate problems before they derail the process.

Good leaders

Good leaders, on the other hand, are visionaries. They focus on what the organization needs to do as a whole to succeed. They are aware of competitors and market forces, and meet with customers and suppliers. Their knowledge of the “outside world” is the basis for their ideas, suggestions and plans.

Good leaders refuse to accept the status quo. They embrace the ideal and work backwards, devising bold, imaginative plans to get the organization where it should go. They are willing to take oversize risks to achieve their goals. Nothing is sacred or off-limits, no obstacle too great. Yet they adapt quickly if they hit a “dead end.” They rapidly reconstruct from plans, and even visions, to address new challenges and opportunities.

Leaders are passionate and persuasive. They excel at inspiring others and in communicating the vision. They recruit talented, motivated people, not specialists. They delegate responsibility so they can focus on selling the project and obtaining ample resources and goodwill to propel the project forward.

Opposites and liabilities

Clearly, managers and leaders approach opportunities and problems differently. Managers see the world from the inside out -- from the perspective of the organization and its internal operations. Leaders see their organization from the outside in -- from the perspective of its customers and its market.

The liability for managers is failing to see the “big picture.” If managers don’t talk regularly with customers or stay abreast of market and corporate news, they will become insulated. Their detailed plans will steer them efficiently and effectively down the wrong path.

Leaders, on the other hand, may allow the weight and urgency of their vision to cause their projects to implode. In their quest to deliver large, breakthrough solutions and to meet customer needs quickly, they may not deliver anything at all. Like Icarus who flew too high and risked too much, leaders and their projects can crash and burn in spectacular fashion.

Reconciling opposites

It should be clear that managers and leaders need each other. Pairing true managers and true leaders can create a dynamic, successful team. If you are a business sponsor, seek a project lead with the manager qualities listed earlier. If you are a manager, make sure your business sponsor has the leadership qualities discussed.

Be careful that you don’t have leaders who report to managers. This will cause leaders to self-destruct in frustration. Conversely, make sure managers have sufficient clout to keep leaders in check.

It’s also important for leaders and managers to stretch themselves to incorporate each others’ traits and characteristics. No one is a pure manager or leader. Everyone has characteristics of both, but we tend to fall into one camp or the other.

We can define a spectrum of “manager” and “leader” characteristics by imagining two ovals that intersect each other like Olympic rings. The left-hand oval represents “managerial” traits and the right-hand oval represents “leadership” traits. The outer left- and right-hand edges of the ovals represent “purebred” managerial or leadership qualities. The intersection between the ovals represents an ideal blend of both qualities .

Most of us should strive to acquire skills that move us from the outer edge of either oval to the intersection between them. This is where we can be most effective in whatever role we play.

Life in the middle

But beware: It is not easy to live in the middle. The answers to problems are not as straightforward as those on the left- or right-hand edges. You often have to think in parallel and hold on to mutually exclusive ideas at the same time. To survive here, you need a clear set of values and goals to help you steer yourself and the project in the right direction.

Although it would be simpler to be a purebred manager or leader at the extremes, our projects -- and the world -- call for us to be different and better. If we can’t reconcile the extremes within us, let’s consciously pair ourselves with our complement on the other side and accept the tension and frustration that result as a good and natural ingredient for success.

About the Author

Wayne W. Eckerson is director of education and research for The Data Warehousing Institute, where he oversees TDWI's educational curriculum, member publications, and various research and consulting services. He has published and spoken extensively on data warehousing and business intelligence subjects since 1994.

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