A manager and an executive are both leaders. The difference in their positions lays in its focus. Think of a company as a puzzle: each piece represents a specific function, such as a department or a project. If you’re a manager, you’re responsible for one of those pieces. A manager’s leadership targets all the work needed to cut, paint and polish that one piece so it fits the assigned space. An executive looks at the entire puzzle to make sure all the pieces fit together effectively, making adjustments when needed.
Managers are the first rung of the leadership ladder, or the lowest level of strategic leadership, while executives represent occupy the top rung. The most common leadership hierarchy has managers who report to directors, who in turn report to executives. The topmost executives in large corporations are often referred to as C-level executives, such as chief executives. Presidents and vice presidents represent another layer of executives and report to the chiefs. As you move higher up the ladder, the more strategic your focus becomes and the less hands-on responsibility you will have.
C-level executives report directly to the CEO. The number of chief executives can differ from company to company. Common C-level positions include chief operating officer, chief financial officer, chief information officer and others. In smaller companies, one chief can wear many hats, having responsibility over a number of functional areas. In larger companies, the number of chiefs can grow, providing for greater specialization, including chiefs of technology, marketing, sustainability, human resources and other key functions.
Executives establish organizational policies and strategies. They focus on issues affecting the entire company, such as profit and loss, market share and compliance with government regulations. Executives set corporate goals and monitor overall performance based on reports from their management teams. These leaders pay close attention to how the company holds up against competitors and determine the actions needed to address challenges posed by market conditions and global economy.
Managers provide focused leadership, zeroing in on specific processes and functions to execute the strategies provided by executives. This level provides in-the-field or on-the-floor direction. They don’t necessarily roll up their sleeves and perform specific processes themselves, but they understand those processes well enough to provide direction to the employees they supervise. Managers make sure employees have the tools they need -- both from a knowledge and an equipment standpoint -- to get a job done properly. Managers then report their teams’ successes, concerns and recommendations to the next level of leaders.
Leadership titles can and do vary. City managers in government and general operations managers in industry function as executives. In some companies, senior managers fill the role of directors, and directors can be considered the first level of executive leadership. At the opposite end of the spectrum, supervisors and team leaders also provide employees with direction, but typically possess limited authority and don't set strategic focus.
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