The role of the manager

How to master the art of 'distant involvement'...

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One of my recent customers invited me for lunch, offering the opportunity to look back a bit. Certainly a gastronomic pleasure, but first and foremost the occasion turned out to be a vivid sharing of reflections and contemplations about our professional lives. And here I found myself embarking into the weekend with the challenge to share some experiences and thoughts…

Being given the opportunity to execute management roles since 1997, my answer to the question “what is your occupation?” has become simply “manager”. By now I should indeed be able to elaborate on that role. “What is the essence of being a manager? What does it take to be a manager?” Let’s see if I can formulate an answer.

The first that pops to mind is “the one facilitating the success of an organisational entity”.

Hmmm, have I always been able to live up to that quest?

Certainly not. To facilitate the success of others requires a mindset that does not come natural to me, and very likely, not to most of us. Speaking for myself in my early years as a ‘manager’ I was primarily motivated by my ambition; being a manager gave me the opportunity to build a career, look after my family and demonstrate my capabilities to others; ‘my old man’ to name one. A mindset that does not necessarily contribute to being a ‘manager’, though be it I tried to look well after my staff too.

As a logical consequence, I found myself struggling with the balance between ‘distance’ and ‘involvement’ (what I call in Dutch: “afstandelijke betrokkenheid”). For professionals ‘involvement’ and identification with their role and professional mission very often is a given. It is ‘keeping a distance’ that is the challenge. Keeping a distance from ‘organisational politics’, from emotion, frustration. And, if you think about it more thoroughly, from self interest. I found it hard to find a balance between being involved and keeping a distance. And after ten years I decided to force the balance to my advantage: I resigned and started working as a contractor, thus increasing my professional distance.

Where does this bring us in relation to the question “what does it take to be a manager?”

It takes ‘distance’ from the self, from self interest, from emotion. And it takes involvement; involvement with the other, interest in the other. An attitude and mindset that, in my case, needs time to mature.

“Is that all?”

By no means, but it is mandatory and will be reflected in many other things contributing to “facilitating the success of an organisational entity”. It will enable ‘leadership’, by standing firm for your goals, principles and staff. It will facilitate by giving clarity on a limited number of short term priorities; with the open mindedness to adapt and tweak when opportune. It will give you the curiosity to keep asking questions, to involve all, to understand their potential and their needs; to facilitate your staff’s success and growth. It will help facilitate by bringing clarity on what is your responsibility (and what is not) and what you expect from other colleagues in order to be successful as a company. It will limit your ego and to a very large extent rule out self interest.

An attempt to sum it up:

A mindset of ‘distant involvement’; enabling leadership, open mindedness and curiosity as a facilitator of growth and success.

Which is so rewarding and such fun to do that it makes ‘being a manager’ the best job ever. Especially when you have internalised “afstandelijke betrokkenheid”.

1 Response

  1. This article was first published on LinkedIn. Below some reactions.

    Michael Roos
    CFO & COO | EMS | A Fiserv & ABN AMRO Company |

    GREAT article Jeroen and for all of us that manage (or have the aspiration to do so!), the below sums up some very important qualities that contribute to being a successful leader:
    A mindset of ‘distant involvement’; enabling leadership, open mindedness and curiosity as a facilitator of growth and success.

    Chantal de Meere
    Associate Partner – Business Consultant at Connective Payments

    It takes distance from the self and self interest, well spoken Jeroen van Dijk!!

    Mark Sijthoff
    Sr. Projectmanager and Scrummaster at European Merchant Services

    Great article and inspiration for many managers. A reflection that can only be said by someone who has that much experience and is not scared to share his feelings with everyone. From self promoting to promoting others seems to be a small step but it is not. Keep on sharing such reflections! And keep on managing as you do now! It will inspire a lot of people and managers. It was a pleasure working with you!

    nyouise L.
    Student International Communication & Media

    Dear Jeroen, I’ve read this article with so much pride because I truly believe that your leadership style has played a significant role in my ability to grow and excel rapidly in the early stages of my career. It has been an honor to work with and learn from you, both on professional and personal level.

    Nile Younis
    Ecosytems Lead, MEA at Mastercard

    Thanks for sharing Jeroen. Although facilitation doesn’t always guarantee success, it does add real value for inspirational thought to be tested which then drives innovation.

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