Success factors for transitioning to general management, from practice to learning to trust and beyond
Functional leaders promoted to executive positions often find themselves lost at sea – unfamiliar not only with the responsibilities surrounding their new role but unsure of the skills and tools necessary to execute them successfully. The marketing manager promoted to partner; the communications lead moved up to the boardroom; the unit head who suddenly finds himself at the executive table. Individuals in such positions tend to quickly discover that the knowledge and capabilities that allowed them to thrive in their previous job have little bearing on the new one, and that a whole new set of skills - or rather, a whole new way of thinking - is suddenly required. They realise that to deliver their new mandate they must change. But how?
1. Questions are more important than answers
Successful functional managers often attribute their success to the knowledge and experience they gained in their previous functional role. Having become accustomed to having the answers, they experience great difficulty transitioning to a role that relies more on asking good questions. A general manager cannot have all the answers. He or she must instead learn to ask the right questions of his or her managers to assess how well they are managing the business.
The surest way to prevent your people from asking the right questions and contributing to the ongoing adaptability and problem-solving of your organisation is to start telling them what to do instead of asking how you can help.
2. Trust is key
When people look upward within the organisation, they see a boss who has the power to overrule, embarrass or fire them. For this reason, their natural reaction to any person above them in the hierarchy is a combination of admiration (hopefully) and fear (unfortunately). As a functional manager you may have been the boss, but people could identify with you because you shared a functional identity and you were tasked with looking out for the interests of that functional area.
As a general manager, you no longer share this functional identity with those below you. To ensure that everyone continues to speak openly and honestly to you as you move up the ladder, you must demonstrate fairness, openness and genuine respect. The honest input and feedback from those ‘below’ you is the key to success in your general management role, which means you must be conscious of behaviours that will compromise their willingness or ability to provide it.
3. Beware of your expertise
As mentioned, successful functional managers often attribute their success in moving up through the organisation to the functional expertise that has to date propelled them forward. While this expertise may drive success and confidence, it may also prevent proper appreciation of the relevance of other areas in the company. As one moves up into a general management role, the ability to see and prioritise all areas of the business becomes key, yet the natural reliance on one’s comfort zone may inhibit, or completely mask, this ability.
4. Value is not earnings. Or market share. Or share price. Or …
Moving into general management means expanding your scope on two key dimensions: (1) from short-term to long-term thinking; and (2) from a single area of responsibility to the impact on the entire organisation. The concept of managing for value incorporates both dimensions, and is distinct from the tendency, especially for lower levels of management, to focus on narrow indicators that do not capture the performance implications for the entire organisation or short-term targets that cannot incorporate the long-term impact of any decision.
5. Business is about serving customers
Every decision in business must be oriented around serving customers, and doing so in a way such that the organisation makes enough money to support its continued health. Your organisation does not seek this goal in isolation. Other companies are trying to serve your customers with similar products or services, and any success of theirs will come - to some degree - at your expense. Survival depends upon having a sustainable competitive advantage in the ability to serve customers while making money. Any discussion not focused on this customer-driven, efficiency-oriented perspective is one that needs to be reframed.
6. Bias has no place in sound decision-making
It is well known that the human brain tends to follow mental processes which make use of shortcuts resulting in a variety of different biases. These biases show up in the way we search for and select data. They also affect the way we make decisions. Finally, these biases can inhibit our ability to learn. For example, we have an easy time giving ourselves credit for successes, but we tend to find excuses for our failures rather than deriving important lessons from them. The GM must be conscious of these biases and be vigilant in mitigating their impact - by forming diverse teams, soliciting independent opinions, collecting broad data sets, reframing questions, and assigning and rotating the role of devil’s advocate, among other techniques.
7. Morale counts for everything
The general manager doesn’t really do anything. Rather, he or she is responsible for managing the managers: those who do tasks and manage others who do other tasks. If your people are not excited, motivated and determined to come to work, to continue to learn and adapt, and to drive decisions and actions to continuously re-establish the business’s competitive advantage and use it to create and capture value, then you are not succeeding as a general manager. Use regular feedback to assess whether your style is motivating individual members of your team, and always search for solutions to maintain high morale.
8. Success depends on teamwork
In addition to building morale, a GM must ensure that ongoing communication is taking place between team members to minimise siloed thinking, reduce inconsistencies and avoid conflicting efforts, which undermine overall efficiency and effectiveness. We work in teams to accomplish tasks one person cannot achieve alone. But there is a difference between a high-performing team and a low-performing one, and this difference is the GM’s responsibility.
To achieve high performance, the team must have trust across all parties, a shared respect for the different roles, a common objective (creating long-term value) and regular communication. The general manager must be vigilant in ensuring these elements are in place, and are continuously reinforced and transparent to all.
9. Learning comes from trust and fairness
The challenge of business - to deliver value to the customer more efficiently than the competition - is unrelenting. In order to continuously build the competitive advantage that allows the business to achieve this goal, all members of the team need to be involved, motivated and working in a coordinated way. Moreover, they must always be searching for new, innovative and creative ways to do it as the world – consumer preferences, regulatory rules, the competitive landscape, the technological frontier, the macroeconomic environment, and so on - continues to change around them.
This continuous learning can take place only if all members of the organisation perceive fairness in all dealings and a sense of collective trust both in one another and in the decision-making process itself. The GM must always seek opportunities to reinforce these pillars and must, with equal diligence, watch for behaviours that undermine them.
10. ‘Practise time’ is critical
We learn through failure and the conscious effort to reflect on it, so that we can modify the process or adopt new techniques to improve. Musicians, athletes and others recognised for displaying high levels of performance in a particular area all go through a similar learning process: practise, feedback, reflection and coaching. These high-performing individuals are diligent and deliberate in practice, and in maximising the learning from experimentation, so that their ‘best’ becomes subconscious and can be instantly deployed come game time.
The general manager must actively look for ways to incorporate experimentation and learning through feedback into day-to-day business.
This is an edited extract from Becoming A Top Manager: Tools and Lessons in Transitioning to General Management by Kevin Kaiser, Michael Pich and I.J.Schecter (Published by Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint), RRP £29.99.
Kevin Kaiser is professor of management practice at INSEAD and director of the transition to general management programme and director of the ABN Amro Managing for Value Research Fund at INSEAD.
I.J. Schecter is an award-winning author and journalist, and CEO of comms firm The Schecter Group.
Michael Pich is dean of executive education at INSEAD and was director of its Transition to General Management Programme.