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General managers play a key role in all major organizations. But what do they do, really? It’s not as easy to define as many other jobs. A truck driver drives a truck. A gastroenterologist helps people with gastrointestinal diseases and disorders. A paperclip salesperson sells paperclips. But if that truck driver works for a larger transport and logistics company, he or she has colleagues somewhere in the organization who are general managers – and they too are part of keeping the company on the road.
General managers need a myriad of interconnected skills to contribute to value creation for their companies. These include the straightforward like knowing the company’s products, what the company must do to stay competitive and the roles of the various functions. Then there are also the more esoteric: leadership, drive, agility and the like. With insights from faculty at IMD Business School, a world-leading institution in Lausanne, Switzerland, and in Singapore, we’ve broken it down into 4 must-have skills for success in general management:
You may be thinking that “visionary leadership” is a rather abstract skill to list first when talking about the skills of a general manager. Shouldn’t general managers just think about the bottom line and get down to business? Actually, for a truly successful general manager, visionary leadership skills are the fusion that keeps it all together.
At IMD Business School, Professor Ina Toegel recently ran an event – part of a popular series called Discovery Events – in which participants went through hands-on exercises to develop their sense of vision and see how to apply it to general management careers. The starting point was that business leaders could learn from artists. “Successful artists, like leaders, generally start off with a vision and are the first to create something,” explains Professor Toegel. “They are often ahead of their time, able to visualize things that do not yet exist, passionate and dedicated to transforming their vision into reality.”
Leaders, like artists, are inspired by a vision for their organization; they need to galvanize others to execute that vision
As a general manager, your vision must include a sense of your current position as well as where you want to go. You must have clear sight both in terms of your own areas of responsibility and that of your company at large. This vision will inform your strategic direction overall, but it also impacts all the little things you and your team do every day.
It’s also important for a general manager’s vision to account for the context. What is the competition up to? Where and when could new competition like non-traditional players, especially digital disruptors, appear? What other factors – for example political, social, environmental, or governmental – impact, or could potentially impact, your market?
Your vision therefore combines the current (what is really your position today) and the projected (way forward). The current should impact your real, daily decisions. The second should too, but it should also give you something to believe in. It must inspire you.
Prof. Toegel explains that visionary leadership cannot end with the general manager having vision; they must also “communicate their passion to others to motivate them to execute their vision.”
That is the leadership part of visionary leadership. It’s not just the little things every day, it is why you do them. Your team members need a “why” as much as you do. It’s your job to provide it.
General managers must be strategic thinkers in order to take vision through to reality. They need to be able design the moves – and constantly keep in mind all the internal and external forces that will come into play as these moves are executed.
Strategy development and execution is often looked at as a roadmap. It’s a decent analogy. You set your course in the direction of your vision for value creation. You look at what you need to achieve along the way, goals and objectives, as well as how to measure your progress. Yes, it’s the nitty-gritty of what it will take on a daily basis. This action plan must also include what resources you need – finance and budget, human, function involvement, time – and, among these, what are your greatest strengths and are there gaps to fill or compensate before you set out on the “road”? You are the driver for implementation of the strategy steps all along the way.
But here’s a caution: you know all those stories about drivers blindly following their vehicles’ navigation systems and winding up in ponds or subway tunnels? Keep your brain turned on and look out the window!
To do this, a general manager must have agility in their strategic leadership. When opportunities present themselves – are you ready to grab them and integrate them into your course? And what do you need to avoid? We must repeat: eyes open for both opportunities and pitfalls!
Agile leaders `significantly out-perform other leaders on measures such as work engagement and leadership effectiveness'
IMD Business School Professor Michael Wade
IMD Professor Michael Wade, an expert in digital disruption, emphasises that agility is particularly important in the digital age, when a new disruptor can hit your market at any time. Research conducted by Prof. Wade and his colleagues showed that agile leaders “significantly out-perform other leaders on measures such as work engagement and leadership effectiveness.”
Aim to create win-win or you won’t.
Negotiation and conflict management skills are absolute essentials for general managers. You’re basically doing it all day long – because your job involves collaborating, exchanging and networking with people both inside and outside of your team and company. We’re talking about everything from guiding team members as they collaborate on a project to leading a M&A. In human interactions, if you have an awareness of your approach and that of the person in front of you, you can establish and maintain the necessary dialogue for mutually beneficial outcomes.
IMD Professor George Kohlrieser points out that successful strategies for negotiation and conflict management don’t actually change whether you are talking about negotiating a hostage crisis or developing a product launch with colleagues. (Prof. Kohlrieser says this from his unique perspective as a business leadership expert who’s also a hostage negotiator.)
He describes the route to successful outcomes as a 6-step process:
Conflicts are the lifeblood of high-performing organizations.
Kohlrieser emphasises that business managers should master conflict because it is a key source of opportunity. “As diversity and interdependency in organizations increases, there is opportunity in the potential conflict,” he explains. “Dealing effectively with these conflicts enables a company to leverage the richness of diverse perspectives for innovative outcomes. In fact, conflicts are the lifeblood of high-performing organizations.”
Many people targeting a career in general management, especially in the early stages, may feel inclined to avoid conflict – a fear that’s natural and human says Prof. Kohlrieser. But you can develop the skills to master negotiation situations – like so many things, it just takes practice. Executive coaching is a particularly helpful in this regard, because a coach can help you build your self-awareness and train your best style in a safe environment where you can risk failure. (Remember, failure is fabulous for learning, but your job probably doesn’t give you to chance to fail at negotiating over and over again. Coaching does.)
Because you’re nothing without your team.
They say that if you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself. But a general manager won’t get far like that. A general manager must know how to delegate, and then to inspire and motivate to completion. Team-building and interpersonal skills run through every element of business management leadership.
What is your vision if only you see it? That’s a dream.
What is strategy without a team that’s motivated and knowledgeable to implement? Going nowhere.
What is a negotiation when you have not used interpersonal skills to bring about win-win? An opportunity lost.
Let’s have a look at your team. As a starting point, most of them arrived at the company wanting to contribute to bringing value to the organization – an intrinsic motivation. A bad boss can break that motivation, and a good boss can inspire them and draw out their best skills. This leads to happy employees, which in turn leads to employees who are better at their jobs… and we think you can see the rest. It’s called inspiration. And it creates a culture of excellence.
Research on what drives this type of positive internal commitment shows that intrinsic motivation contains three essential elements: autonomy, mastery and connection.
IMD Business School Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur
IMD Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur says fostering intrinsic motivation is often undervalued as a managerial skill. There is much more emphasis on extrinsic motivation, that is to say rewards and penalties. He says extrinsic motivation can work, but only to a point. “One reason for an overreliance on extrinsic motivators may be that reward and punishment systems can be relatively easy to put in place,” he writes in an article on changing behaviors. “But motivation based purely on reward and punishment is hard to sustain over time.”
So how do you tap into that initial motivation, keep it strong and draw out their best skills? “Research on what drives this type of positive internal commitment shows that intrinsic motivation contains three essential elements: autonomy, mastery and connection,” explains Prof. Ben-Hur.
A good general manager recognizes what team members are good at and lets them design it and do it. Let them shine as they play their part in implementing the overall strategy. You need to lead by example – through your commitment to the vision and your willingness to apply your part in the strategy. Show also that you are willing to learn and get better, and encourage them to do the same, building their best talents through executive education and on-the-job opportunities.
Aside from what they are good at, a good team leader recognizes how team members’ personalities and characteristics impact their performance. Personality, age and culture – among infinite other personal characteristics – are all alongside functional skill in contributing to a person’s achievements. Cultural intelligence is a must-have for successful managers for example. And consider that you may want to approach leading millennials in a different fashion compared to a traditional team.
Finally, because the teams’ relationship and capacity for success is driven by the group dynamic as well as individual contributions, be fully prepared to manage conflict within the team. They will come to you – and if they don’t, you need to increase your awareness and make yourself more available – and it is your job to set the tone. A general manager is a leader.
You can build on these 4 must-have skills to be the general management leader you are meant to be. In all four – visionary leadership, strategy, conflict management, and team-building – it is important to get the feel for your personal leadership style. You will also need to be agile enough to evolve your approach as you change, your market changes, and as your team changes. The skills of a general manager don’t come in a toolkit. They’re in you.
IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland and in Singapore has been ranked first in open programs by the Financial Times seven years in a row (2012-2018). IMD has been training international executives, managers and leaders for more than 70 years.
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