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FROM SPECIALIST TO GENERALIST

Step one in the transition from functional to business leadership

By IMD Professor Michael D. Watkins - September 2014

"Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way." U.S. General George Patton's gruff definition of leadership is engagingly direct. But what it gains in simplicity it loses in subtlety; it fails to capture differences, which are substantial, in the type of leadership demanded by different roles. This is the case whether we are talking colonels and captains, or general managers and functional managers.

In the corporate world, one of the most challenging transitions in the career of any rising business leader is the moment when he or she moves up from heading a single-function unit, such as a sales or marketing department, to holding a true general management position. 

The leadership skills and attributes that make someone successful as a functional leader are quite different to those of the effective general manager or enterprise leader. In the words of Marshall Goldsmith, "what got you here won't get you there." 

However, the precise nature of the differences has not been clear. In an effort to pin down the specific changes, we interviewed 40 senior executives on how they saw this transition. 

The interviews yielded seven major, or seismic, shifts that successful leaders go through in moving from functional to general management. In this article, we focus on the first of the seismic shifts, which we define as the switch from "specialist" to "generalist." 

Typically, business careers begin within a single function, with only limited exposure gained in other corporate areas. But an enterprise leader has responsibility for many business functions. Enterprise leaders will have people reporting to them who know far more about their particular areas than their new boss does. This can be a major challenge, so it is important to adopt the right approach. And the right approach is not to try and become an expert in all areas because that would be a 65-year developmental path. 

The answer is to work out how to get the best from these people and how to hone the teamwork. An enterprise leader has to ensure that he or she knows enough about the various functions to achieve the necessary integration.

When is enough, enough? 

How much knowledge is enough for the generalist? The answer lies in understanding just what needs to be known about each of the functions, and this understanding has three components. First, it is necessary to speak the same business language as the specialist. If someone is speaking finance, the generalist needs to be able to say, "Well, what you really mean from a business point of view is this…" 

Part two is to understand the mental models that people in specialist functions bring to the table. How does a person from a given function "see" business issues? A finance person is going to approach the world through the lenses of costs and benefits and discounted cash flow and costs of capital. For a sales and marketing person it could be customer segments and value propositions. Anyone in a general leadership role needs to understand these fundamental mindsets. 

The third requirement is to know enough to be able to judge the performance of leaders in all the key functions. The overall manager needs to know whether his or her finance vice-president is any good. That requires knowing what questions to ask and what metrics to look at. 

How to get up to speed 

Nobody can be fully prepared for becoming a general manager. Nevertheless, some preparation is possible. One thing would be to spend time working in other functions. That is not easy because, as we have noted, career paths tend to develop within silos and it can be risky to move away. But if the opportunity is there, and there is a re-entry path, it can be a tremendously useful thing to do. 

The other main way is to take part in cross-functional teams. Such teams could be project-based. New product development teams can be a fantastic experience because typically a lot comes together there. Teams overseeing major investments are also good. Acquisition integration teams offer a powerful mix of functions too. 

What kind of person?

But what kind of person is best suited to a wider leadership role? Are there particular skills involved? The short answer is probably 'yes'. If somebody lives and breathes the work of their function—marketing, for example—then perhaps they are best advised to stick with that. There are tremendous careers to be built in functional leadership. 

However, if a person is more focused on the broader set of business interests; if they think a lot about the external environment; if despite being in marketing they are fascinated by what goes on in operations or supply chain, then clearly they have cross-functional interests and probably should pursue them. 

But, as in any transition, what it comes down to in the end is the willingness to learn. The biggest reason why leaders fail in transitions is because they don't go back into a learning mode. This is even more crucial when making this seismic shift to enterprise leadership. 


Michael D. Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD. He co-directs Transition to Business Leadership, a program designed for experienced functional managers who either have recently transitioned or will soon transition into a business leadership position.

SEVEN SEISMIC SHIFTS is a trademark of IMD – International Institute for Management Development



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