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General management is a popular career move for successful functional managers who hit the responsibility ceiling of a particular function before they’re ready to stop climbing. And why not? The sky is the limit for general managers when it comes to long-term career opportunities. You can move across industries and up the ladder.
But is that what you really want? Are you ready to move away from your tight expertise in your specialty? Are you prepared to give up the hands-on nature of your work and put your skills into getting the best out of team members?
IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland, and in Singapore, a world-leader in executive education offers insights into general management and into becoming a general manager:
The salary potential is often the first siren call of general management. Yes, a good business manager can make a comfortable salary – and general management is typically the go-to group for companies looking to fill senior management roles. But let’s look at some other reasons you might want to move into general management, as well as why these things might not be for you.
Leadership is, at the base, what general management is all about. But leadership is actually a fine balance of several different skills. You need to have vision and strategic leadership skills – be able to spot opportunities to seize and pitfalls to avoid. You need to have a good handle on finance and budgeting because all your vision is useless if it outpaces your capital potential. You need to be strong when interacting with clients, suppliers and competitors. And you need to inspire your teams – this takes communicating your vision well, having a sense of what each team member can contribute, and then coaxing their best skills out of them.
The most effective leaders are those who empower their team
“The most effective leaders are those who empower their team,” writes IMD Professor Ina Toegel. “A healthy team dynamic is crucial to high performance: it allows teams to make effective use of their time, to be truly engaged creatively, and therefore – to find optimal solutions to problems.”
Ah – there is the thing. Leadership for a general manager is about excellence, but excellence is bigger than your skills. You succeed as a function manager because you’re very good at what you do. And you were probably good at what you do because you loved it. You’re going to have to let go. It is tempting to take over when someone is not performing, or even just not performing in the style you would.
Most of us have worked for a micromanager at some point in our careers. There is nothing less inspiring, is there?
There are two reasons to avoid this. Most of us have worked for a micromanager at some point in our careers. There is nothing less inspiring, is there? The second reason is that a general business manager – by definition – doesn’t stay within their own field of excellence. Your team members will be better at certain (even many… uh, most) tasks than you. Understand this and guide them, but let them excel in their own way.
The good news about leadership, including team leadership, is that contrary to what some would have you think, it is a skill you can learn and perfect. More about that below.
So you say you’re ambitious about advancing in business. How general is your ambition? When opportunity comes knocking for general managers, it can be from a number of sources: another industry, international management, senior management within your own company, or the right time to launch as an entrepreneur. General manager skills are very transferable and can always be further developed.
A functional manager can move to greater challenges leading the function by moving to a different company and working in the same field. To be a skilled general manager, you need to be able to lead in any business, not just the one you came up in. If you’re a business leader running out of new challenges working for a bottle cap producer, your CV will be interesting to a bigger bottle cap maker, but just as interesting to a cement manufacturer. However, to ensure your performance is as good as your CV, you need to prepare yourself well for the challenge of generalist skills. You need a transition to create a good general manager CV. IMD Professor Michael Watkins explains cross-functional fluency as the key to making the transition from specialist to generalist:
A company's business functions are managerial subcultures with their own rules and languages.
“A company's business functions are managerial subcultures with their own rules and languages. Managers transitioning to enterprise leadership roles must therefore work hard to achieve ‘cross-functional fluency.’ Someone who grew up in marketing obviously cannot become a native speaker of operations or R&D, but he or she can become fluent — comfortable with the central terms, tools, and ideas employed by the various functions whose work he or she must integrate.”
Excitement, going places…
Your management career can take you lots of places – figuratively and literally. Multinational companies that count on a stable of general managers will offer the best talents experience across different business areas and geographic locales. You become involved in some of your company’s most critical activities, such as mergers or new market strategies. It’s intense, it’s challenging, it’s exciting.
Let’s pause a moment on excitement. Sure it’s a good thing. But not everyone wants their career to be the most exciting thing in their lives. A high-flying business management career isn’t always the most conducive to a good work-life balance. There are probably times in your life when you want to be very hands-on in terms of family life – when your children are young or when your parents need extra support, for example. And we hope you have hobbies that add zest to your life.
Fortunately, the corporate world and business schools are more aware of this need. At a good business school, management training will include training skills to help you understand and achieve the balance that’s right for you.
Remember we said leadership is a skill that can be learned? You’ll find that your leadership learning will go faster and deeper if you take a personal strategic approach. What’s more, this will have a determining impact on your success in general management. When you are a new general manager or making the transition into general management, it’s important to find opportunities to get experience in different areas of your business. You can specifically prepare for your transition by requesting, for example, secondments or internships in other functional or geographic areas. Pair this with executive education and you’ll get a boost to rise above the crowd and find the kind of general manager jobs you want.
On-the-job before, during and after your transition into general management role, you will learn in many ways: you will learn from other managers – both senior and peer; from your team members (see above – let go, let them shine and you will learn!); by watching and doing things that work; and you will – you must – learn from mistakes.
The value of this learning will be immeasurably enhanced if you can be mindful of your experiences. Ask yourself, test yourself – what happened, what came of it, what would you do again, what would you change for next time?
On-the-job learning, no matter how strategic and serious you are about it, will only take you so far. Especially at times of career transition, executive education programs help you develop and hone leadership and management skills both directly and indirectly.
A good general management program will address the fundamental skills and strategies of the role, using the latest business research and knowledge, guided by an expert who’s been there. Beyond that, business education helps you assess your management skills, your own leadership style and where you should improve. Your class, especially if it is on-campus, can provide you with a safe environment to practice and perfect your leadership skills – a top tool for this is executive coaching (if you are opting for an online course or blended program, no fear, many programs use group and/or individual online coaching with tools such as Skype).
A management class can be your secret weapon for excellent on-the-job learning
Here’s something you might not expect when you’re off to a management class: it can be your secret weapon for excellent on-the-job learning. Taking the time for a business education – whether an MBA/EMBA, executive open program or online class – gives you a different lens with which to look at your at-work experiences. You will increase your overall mindfulness and make more out of every learning experience, to better fulfill your role as a leader in general management.
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.
Deliver better business results, lead teams more effectively and take on your next general management role with confidence. Get a business management program from IMD business school»See all the programs