How to be a General Manager


Author: Mick Yates

I know my functional skills – but what are the skills and competencies I need to develop to become a General Manager, Divisional President or even CEO?”

That was a question I was asked recently. Interestingly I had just been reading the correspondence section of the latest (September) Harvard Business Review, where there was a debate on whether you can be taught to be a General Manager or whether it is all down to experience – and other comments on being “Jack of all Trades, Master of None”. Well, here’s my take. You can learn the skills, and learning from your experience is necessary.

Some pointers:

1. Core Competency. Every successful organization has a few core competencies – and without mastering those there is no way for a General Manager to succeed. It is no surprise, for example, that marketing is an essential skill for a Procter & Gamble GM.

In my experience, every good GM or CEO has mastered at least one such “functional” competency. They may be responsible for “All Trades”, but they are definitely “Master of Something”. So, if you want to be a GM, be sure you understand the core competencies of your enterprise as a first step.

2. Contextual Judgment & Creativity. No one can be in charge of everything that is going on today – teams and networks are needed. But a General Manager must continually be learning and internalizing the issues relevant to the enterprise – technology, markets, resources, social trends – and most importantly people.

Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas have written eloquently about how one’s judgment is honed at “crucible moments”. It is the way that the General Manager judges what is important and what is not that defines success. Bennis and Thomas talk of “Adaptive Capacity” being one of the most important traits for successful leaders, by which they mean changing things according to context with applied creativity.

This all begs the question – can you learn how to do this? I’d argue “yes”, provided you spend time learning new things and reflecting on what is happening to you and those around you.

3. Simple & Inspiring Communication It is easy to set out big, hairy goals and grand visions. The GM’s job is to make the complex simple, and to help everyone in the enterprise see how they fit – and feel inspired to do what is needed.

Wherever possible, describe in simple terms how it will feel for members of the organization to be at the end-state versus how things are today. Bring it alive at the individual level. This is most definitely a teachable process – and there are many tools that help. See the 4E’s Leadership Framework as one such approach.

4. Cascading of Executional Objectives. Much research suggests that, whatever the grand design, it is the detailed execution of plans that define success or failure. Critical to this is that everyone knows they role and why they are doing things.

Consider using tools like the simple strategic cascade tool of OGSM (Objectives-Goals-Strategies-Measures). Objectives are words (e.g. be the most successful fruit juice marketeer in China). Goals are numbers (10% market share). Strategies are choices (Focus on distribution in the top 350 cities). And Measures allow you to track progress and dates. Importantly, once the over-arching OGSM has been set, you can cascade Strategies to be owned by people in the organization as their Objective – and so on. Everyone knows their place and what they are being asked to do.

5. “What You Stand For”. This is true for leaders of all kinds, and not just GM’s. Leaders must make it clear to those around them what is important to them, what they represent as individuals, and thus allow their followers to decide to follow.

An essential component of this is sharing one’s values, not least as values congruence in an organization is very important. It is not enough to express these values – they must be seen in one’s day to day actions. Remember, trust takes a long time to build, and is broken in an instant – and nothing destroys trust more than shattered values. Of course, when you are at the top of an organization, the spotlight is always on you, and you have an absolute responsibility to share what you are all about as a human being.

Are you in favour of centralized control, or distributed leadership? How important are social concerns? Profit or revenue? Dedication to the Company or work-life-balance? Change or the status quo? etc etc. And, to repeat, you are what you do. There is no point saying what you stand for if you don’t actually practice it.

6. Personal Leadership model. We all carry in our head a view of what Leadership is, and that guides the way we do things. Sometimes we have it well-articulated, but rarely do we take the time to explain to others what it is. This is of course part of what we each stand for.

But, once more, the spotlight is always on the GM or CEO. Everyone watches how we lead, and what we believe about leadership. They will choose to respond positively or negatively – and they will choose to imitate or reject. Many enterprises see leadership development as a pre-requisite for effective talent planning, team effectiveness and other core organizational activities. Nothing helps move this along better than senior people teaching leadership – by explaining what they are doing as events unfold or in more formal settings.

Teaching your personal leadership model is a powerful part of a General Manager’s team-building tool kit.

7. Energy For Change. Perhaps it goes without saying, but if the Boss lacks the energy to make things happen, to drive change, to continually reinforce the key messages, to make course corrections and so forth – then the job will just not get done.

I was once asked what I thought the hardest thing to deal with was for a new General Manager. Well, from my own experience, it is the loneliness that comes from knowing that you have to keep going no matter what happens, and no matter how supportive your team is.

General Managers make a personal commitment to take responsibility even if others can’t quite take it on themselves.

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