HR & Leadership

The Difference Between a Manager and a Leader

July 26, 2021

There’s a lot to be said for dreaming big. It’s like that famous saying about shooting for the moon and reaching the stars—there’s no such thing as setting your sights too high.

Merline Saintil agrees. Over her career, she has established a proven track record of operationalizing strategy and developing award-winning products while in pivotal roles at leading companies including Intuit, Yahoo, PayPal, Adobe, Joyent, and Sun Microsystems.

Today, she brings her corporate governance experience to bear on public and private boards, advising companies on a wide range of critical topics such as enterprise risks, technology trends, innovation, strategy, cybersecurity, and digital transformation.

The breadth and depth of Merline’s professional journey has given her the opportunity to curate a lot of valuable, life-changing advice. And on an episode of the BUILDing To Boss podcast, we were lucky enough to have her stop by to share some particularly interesting tidbits—including the difference between a manager and leader (hint: a title doesn’t make you a leader).

Listen below, or scroll down to read the highlights.

Take networking and relationships seriously

You might think Silicon Valley is about technology, but Merline knows better. “Silicon Valley is about relationships,” she says. “For real.” This is why intentional, proactive networking is an absolutely crucial part of any technology career.

In Merline’s experience, the key to networking success is authenticity. “Networking is really not complicated,” she says. “It could just be offering to help someone. My last two board appointments came about because I helped someone, and they made an introduction. If you open with helping someone out, positive things can happen.”

Related read: How To Build a Professional Network, According to Someone Who Networks for a Living

Another strategy Merline recommends is creating as many non-overlapping networks as possible. The idea is to spend time with a lot of different people. Get outside of your usual circles to gain different perspectives. Just doing that can open your eyes to all kinds of previously unseen possibilities.

Send the elevator back down

On a related note, remember that networks aren’t just about helping you get to where you want to go. Often, they’re about how you can help others reach their goals.

“On your way up, it’s too easy to focus on your peers, bosses, and the people ahead of you,” Merline says. “But it’s important to remember how you got where you are. I stand on the shoulders of many people who have invested in me.” That’s a truth that applies to all of us.

“Remember how you got where you are.”

The idea of “sending the elevator back down” is about paying it forward by mentoring and coaching so that you can accelerate positive outcomes for others and bring people up with you. And—as a bonus—often when you help others grow and succeed, you end up helping yourself do the same.

Learn the difference between a manager and a leader

Merline quoted Brad Smith, the CEO of Intuit, who said, “Your title makes you a manager. Your people decide if you’re a leader.”

Titles are great, but they won’t transform you into the person you want to be. And, as it turns out, being a leader isn’t all about command and control. “People need to be inspired to follow you,” Merline says. “As a leader, your job is to inspire people to create really great outcomes.”

“Your title makes you a manager. Your people decide if you’re a leader.”

So, if you want to lead, figure out what you need to do to get people excited and engaged in a shared vision and mission. Stoke those fires and support your people.

Take more risks

When asked about what advice she’d give her younger self, Merline said, “Take more risks. And know that everything you want is just outside your comfort zone.”

To help you stretch beyond that comfort zone, Merline counsels people—especially women just starting out in their careers—to refuse to let others define you or your potential. As Merline’s professional history proves, one career can span many roles—in her case engineer, operations, and board member. “It’s really just about prioritizing what you focus on at a particular time,” she says. “You don’t need to limit yourself.”

“Take more risks. And know that everything you want is just outside your comfort zone.”

Lean into difficult problems

The truth about hard stuff is that it never goes away on its own. It’s also true that facing the hard stuff head-on is the most effective way to grow and evolve. Quoting Brad Smith again, Merline points out that everything—whether you come in first or fall short—is a learning opportunity.

Looking at experiences through this lens lets Merline take an analytical approach to assessing outcomes. “This perspective helps me remain intentional about my decision making,” she says. “By thinking through why I won something or failed has really helped me reinvent myself to stay relevant.”

Don’t wait for permission—and don’t underestimate yourself

“If you’re waiting for permission to be powerful and achieve your dreams, you’ll be waiting a long time,” Merline says. That belief is part of why she loves what Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said during the commencement speech she gave at Harvard in 2008:

“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”

Or, as Merline puts it, “Set your sights high, and hustle.”

Listen to the episode

To hear more from the amazing Merline Saintil, check out her full episode of BUILDing To Boss. She shares what it was like leading mobile and emerging products within Yahoo, how she landed her first board role, and much more.


Jamie is a writer, mom, and nature lover based in Ipswich, MA.