Making the Move to General Manager

Managers face a critical transition when they rise from functional expert to general manager. It's an exciting shift but it's also fraught with pitfalls. A new executive education program at Harvard Business School aims to smooth and accelerate this transition, as professor and program chair Benjamin C. Esty explains. Key concepts include:
  • The first big challenge for general managers with newly acquired or significantly expanded responsibilities is learning to see linkages and interconnections across the organization.
  • The second is transitioning from the role of "doer" to the role of managing through other people—and that's a big change.
  • The General Management Program helps participants lead through two big sources of turbulence: globalization—what happens when market boundaries change—and shifts in technology.
by Martha Lagace

People achieve success in the early years of their career by specializing and becoming functional experts—in essence, they succeed by knowing more and more about less and less, says Benjamin C. Esty, chair of the General Management Program at Harvard Business School. "But there comes a time when they have to recreate themselves as generalists. In this new generalist role, they end up knowing less and less about more and more. This is an extremely difficult and potentially very risky transition, and it can easily derail a very successful career. GMP is about smoothing and accelerating this transition into general management."

For new general managers—or just as likely in companies these days, senior functional managers who operate as part of an executive team or who have important cross-functional or cross-organizational responsibilities—their job has changed from driving excellence in a single functional area to integrating consistency, cohesion, and alignment across many moving parts in the business unit.

"When you're responsible for leading, it's not enough to do what you've done in the past. You need to fundamentally rethink what you're doing and where you want to go in the future."

Launched in autumn 2006, GMP is a new executive education comprehensive leadership program designed to address the needs and concerns of precisely these managers. GMP's innovative teaching philosophy and methodology are driven by a core group of extremely committed GMP faculty; the program is also supported by a very professional and skillful administrative team. Although it is a new program, GMP actually grew out of two other longstanding programs with a deep tradition and knowledge base at the School, the Program for Management Development (PMD) and The General Manager Program (TGMP), which together have more than 11,000 alumni.

As a modular program—with on-campus learning interspersed with work back at the organization—GMP's target market is executives with fifteen to twenty years of experience. In a typical program, there are executives from twenty-five to thirty different countries, more than fifty different industries, and all functional areas. Participants typically lead (or are about to assume leadership positions) at the business unit, division, or country level.

The first big challenge for new general managers, says Esty, is seeing linkages and interconnections across the organization. The second is transitioning from the role of a doer to the role of managing through other people—and that's a big change.

"As a new GM, you will be one step away from the customers or one step away from the shop floor. Your job is much more about people and less about hands-on doing. So really the challenge is about delegation and achieving leverage; and on some level it's about finding, hiring, developing, and retaining top people. With those individuals, you then have to build an effective team.

"A lot of people aren't comfortable letting go; they want to do."

How It Works

New skills, while important, are only a small part of what new general managers must possess. GMP's greater goal is to challenge them with new perspectives and ideas around people and organizations to help them forge connections across functional areas, says Esty.

To that end, readings and classroom discussions in GMP are very different from the Harvard MBA program, and from other HBS leadership programs. Where the MBA program develops functional skills, GMP uses business cases that cut across multiple functional areas and highlight the challenges of integration. The cases also focus on general managers from companies around the globe in an effort to mirror the international mix of participants. "We try to have cases that reflect the people in the group. More importantly, we choose cases with protagonists that have exactly these general manager jobs, who are 'the general manager in the middle' who have the incredibly difficult job of managing up, down, and across the organization.

"The cases are designed to get smart people to see different things in the same situation. In essence, the cases end up being Rorschach-like experiences: 'Here are some clouds. What do you see?' It's stunning for the class to realize that very smart people can come to very different conclusions. And so it really expands how they think about problems and gets them to focus on the process of making important decisions." But changing the way people think and improving their business judgment is what GMP is really all about, says Esty.

For faculty it's exciting, he said, because the teaching imperative mirrors the participants' experiences because faculty teach outside their own area of expertise. Esty, for instance, is an expert in corporate finance. "We don't teach as finance professors or marketing professors; we teach as general management professors under the rule that anybody can teach anything and everybody teaches everything. By teaching across functional boundaries, we're trying to replicate in the program what the participants face in their new jobs."

Like executives, faculty eventually need to resist career pressures that compel them to become too narrow because many, if not most, business problems are multi-dimensional. "When you come to HBS as a junior faculty member, you study relatively narrow subjects in a single domain; and if you're going to really tackle big issues you'll have to get broader and understand the complexities and nuances of business at a deeper level.

"This program, for those of us who teach it, really gets back to the core of what Harvard Business School was founded on: a general management perspective. That means some breadth, where you have to understand the linkages across the business, but also some depth in order to understand what drives the business, what the core economics look like, and how leaders lead."

Similarly, participants are encouraged to think about the general management issues in each case rather than focus on functional aspects. They're asked to figure out what the issues are and how they affect all aspects of the organization as well as the people, the customers, and other important constituents. In their job as well, issues don't arrive on their desk flagged as marketing or finance issues; part of the challenge is problem identification. Then the challenge is to design a feasible and integrated solution that works for the entire business unit.

You're A Case Study

GMP participants don't just talk about cases; they also each write their own case study describing an important leadership challenge they face. The "Your Case Study" exercise, developed by HBS professor Joshua D. Margolis and Sarah M. Kauss, was adopted by GMP faculty with several objectives in mind. It effectively forces participants to apply what they've been learned in the program. At the same time, it provides benefits to the sponsoring organizations by requiring participants to work on personally relevant issues. It does, however, have one other longer-term benefit. Esty hopes some of these individual case studies will be developed into full-fledged case studies for use in the GMP program. "I would love to see 10 to 20 percent of our cases involve graduates of the program," he says.

Participants write the case study while on break between on-campus modules, then come back to campus and discuss it with two types of groups. The first is their "living group," a mixture of participants with whom they live and interact on-campus.

"For instance, I might write that my organization is merging and that my leadership challenge involves merger integration; you, on the other hand, may be in charge of developing a market entry strategy for China. So we each have something different, but we know each other well from having lived and worked together in the program. After getting advice from the people in your living group, the next step is to match people with similar leadership challenges or with specific expertise in those areas. As people draw on each other's experience and knowledge, they begin to build a lasting advisory network. Clearly one of the long-term benefits of the program is being part of such a fantastic network of advisors, coaches, and mentors." A related benefit is the program's clear emphasis on personalized learning through a series of exercises like this one and other diagnostic exercises.

By this point in the program, students also concentrate on leadership and driving change. Leadership is about getting things done, but it's also about how to react when events happen to you, says Esty. GMP gets students to think about two big sources of turbulence: globalization—what happens when market boundaries change—and technology shifts—what happens when an industry's fundamental economics change.

Your job is much more about people and less about hands-on doing.

The final module of the program is lifelong learning. "I've emphasized that we teach people a set of skills, perspectives, and ideas. But what we're trying to do is get them ready to learn and relearn, and in some cases unlearn, and to critically think about how they look at the world and some assumptions they make."

Students can continue to personalize their education as much as possible by accessing a proprietary Web site called Transition to General Manager. There they read interviews on forty topical areas with roughly fifty Harvard alumni who've navigated a similar career shift.

The goal is really to address idiosyncratic development needs. While the program's core content address issues, ideas, and theories relevant to the typical new general manager, the program actually involves eighty individual general managers. "Our goal is to make sure we address as many individual development needs as possible. And that's what we try to do in Modules 3 and 5 with the proprietary Web sites and access to other HBS resources including HBS faculty. Drawing on the depth of our faculty and personalizing the connections between participants and HBS faculty is a critical part of the program."

A Break From The Everyday

Short programs can effectively deliver basic skills and present new theories, but GMP is doing something much more complex: trying to change the way people think about important problems and get them to make better business decisions. It is also trying to change the way they act by improving their leadership skills. The former takes time to identify and assess critical assumptions about management, leadership, and business; the latter requires practicing new approaches.

Getting away for an extended period from the everyday demands of the office is therefore vital for many general managers, says Esty. "One, you have to get away from day-to-day activities to really learn, and that doesn't happen for a weeklong or two-week program. The second thing is, we're not teaching just skills; we're teaching perspectives and mental mindframes, and it takes time to step back and think about how you perceive the world, to consider what assumptions you are making about management and leadership, and to consider alternatives and then practice them."

Trust and cohesion are therefore fundamental components of the GMP experience. Participants are encouraged to help each other. It takes time for cohesion to build to the point where people want to help each other, and where they trust each other enough to give and receive very candid feedback. Few executives have access to this kind of insightful and very helpful feedback inside their organization, particularly when it comes from non-competitive peers.

"An extended program gives you the opportunity to really step back and reconsider how you approach issues, navigate them, lead, and question what you do to possibly change it and try out some new ideas. It gives you a chance in a very low-risk setting to try out new approaches. It's a supportive environment here at HBS. We know learning requires risk-taking and sometimes entails failure, disappointment, and frustration. We've got a setting where the stakes are low and the group is very supportive, friendly, and knowledgeable. So the longer break gets people to take risks, try new things, and envision something better. In the end, participants leave with the skills to identify, frame, and solve complex business problems and the confidence to make important business decisions in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment."

Time is necessary for reflection on who you are as well as what you do, he continues. The living groups offer a lot of feedback that improves participants' self-awareness in ways that are not possible inside an in-house company program where people would likely feel competitive or unwilling to let down their guard.

For Esty it has been a great opportunity to expand his knowledge about organizations and what general managers really worry about, and it's a chance to hear from talented senior executives. Helping them through this transition has been deeply fulfilling: "I learn an incredible amount every day I teach in this program."

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.