8 strategies to handle the move from Functional Head to General Manager

The hardest move I ever had to make was moving from a functional head- in my case Sales Director- to General Manager.  And to be honest it was the transition that I was least prepared for.

Looking back on my previous companies, I believe that this move is the most traumatic to job candidates primarily because many of the skills that led them to be great functional heads are redundant as a new General Manager.

To help this transition Michael Pich and Kevin Kaiser, INSEAD professors closely involved with the Transition to General Management program, have collaborated with writer I.J. Schecter to produce a book that seeks to address the problem by putting fictitious managers in the sorts of situations that befall their real-life counterparts and then helping them find their way out. The result is Becoming A Top Manager (Jossey-Bass), a concise handbook.

They echo my view that making this move into General Management requires serious mental and emotional effort. They point out, the move often involves unlearning much of the knowledge that has been acquired over many years that has enabled candidates to become successful functional heads. The critical change is an understanding of the complexity and scope of running a whole business as opposed to part of one.

After reviewing their book, here are what I believe are the critical points to guide you in your move or to assist others make the transition;

  1. Questions are more important than answers. Managers of departments commonly attribute their success to their knowledge and experience. As a result, they become used to having the answers. But a general manager cannot have all the answers. It is more important to be able to ask the right questions.
  2. Trust others and learn how to be trusted. When they move from their functional roles, managers lose the shared identity they have had with the people who work for them. Moreover, general managers sometimes have to make decisions that may not seem to be in the best interests of their old departments. To ensure that there continues to be open and honest communication it is essential that the manager demonstrates fairness, openness and genuine respect.
  3. Beware of your expertise. Because successful functional managers often attribute their success to their specialist knowledge or expertise they can be tempted to rely solely upon it as they move into a wider role. This may lead to them not acknowledging the importance of other parts of the business and so compromise their ability to have a genuine appreciation of the whole organization.
  4. Avoid a short term focus. Successful general managers resist the temptation to oversimplify the job by focusing on a few narrowly-defined short-term performance indicators and instead maintain integrity by looking at the long-term, organization-wide impact of any acts or decisions.
  5. Business is about serving customers. Every decision in business must be based on serving customers and doing so in such a way that the organization makes enough money to survive. Since other companies are focused in just the same way it follows that any discussion not centered on the customer and efficiency needs to be reframed.
  6. Bias has no place in sound decision-making. General managers need to be aware of the biases that affect us all and so be vigilant in mitigating their impact – by such means as forming diverse teams, soliciting independent opinions, collecting wide-ranging data, reframing questions and assigning and rotating the role of playing “devil’s advocate”.
  7. Team Morale counts for everything. The general manager does not really do anything. Instead, their role is to create the environment in which people are motivated to do good work. It is important that the general manager seeks regular feedback to ensure that he or she has a style that is motivating people and always looks for ways of maintaining high morale. They should not forget the role of fun in this.  Success depends on teamwork. In addition to building morale, the general manager is responsible for ensuring that people work well together in teams. The difference between high-performing and low-performing teams is the general manager’s responsibility.
  8. “Practice time” is critical. The general manager must actively look for ways of building experimentation and learning through feedback into the day-to-day business. If he or she can build into the daily management of the business a culture of continuous learning through small-scale experimentation they will be rewarded with motivated teams and a productive organization.Secure an experienced mentor with whom you can discuss the options you have and find ways to create and assess more options for future action.

No doubt, others might have other priorities; but this is a great start. And if they have helped convince organizations that effective leadership is not all about vision and strategy then so much the better.

One Reply to “8 strategies to handle the move from Functional Head to General Manager”

  1. thanks for this, I’m hopefully going to move into this role in a few months and will read with interest

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