It’s all about who they spend their time with.
Executives spend a majority of their time with other executives and most of a manager’s day is spent with their team.
In my experience, the demarcation between managers and executives happens at the Director level. While there may be some organizations where someone is called a Director but really spends most of their day working on projects with their staff – they are a Manager. Government is famous for this and so are other large bureaucracies – promoting with title instead of responsibility.
Sometimes they even go the other way and take someone who is valuable to the organization, but would not make a good Manager, and skip them over a position that requires them to manage people, and make them a Director to reward their work, seniority or skill. That’s actually pretty smart.
Why make someone a manager who is no good at it?
Some give a title as a marketing gimmick – how many financial advisors in a small office do you know with the title of Vice President? It’s like the Shelley Levene character in the movie Glengarry Glenn Ross, played by Jack Lemon, who despite being a phone salesman, becomes the President of Rio Rancho Properties when he has a customer on the phone.
Those outliers aside, in general someone Director level or higher is leading the managers who are doing the actual work – and that’s a good and important role in most companies. As long as they don’t revert to their past training as a manager and try to jump in and run an important project.
Watch this scene from Band of Brothers, where new Captain Dick Winters is ordered to stay out of the fight by his commanding officer, after he attempts to revert to his old role as Lietenant for Easy Company:
Just as it’s important for a first time manager to spend most of their time “managing, not doing” it’s is also important for executives to be “leading, not managing”.