Future Business Leaders: Where Have All of the General Managers Gone?

Where have all of the General Managers gone? HBR has recently run a couple of articles on this topic (Bring Back the General Manager – 7/10) and I couldn’t agree more with the findings. With the constant pressure to demonstrate quarterly profits and to find dollars to invest in growth opportunities, organizations have been trying to be as lean as possible. They are seeking to garner every efficiency that they can out of the system. One way corporations have done this is by merging smaller businesses into larger business groups and cutting out any redundancies with the new organization. The elimination of the general manager position in particular is not just due to the recent economic downturn but has been going on the better part of the last decade. After a few iterations of narrowing the food chain, an organization can be quickly left with too few good leaders who are equipped and able to lead a team of cross-functional business directors. These “Leaders” might have functional expertise in their discipline but they are lost when it comes to setting a vision and strategy their broader business.

Ron Ashkenas (@rashkenas) the author of the article notes that for “talented people” who want to run a real business those opportunities are fewer and fewer in large companies and so the talent leaves for smaller companies and start-ups. Ashkenas goes on to suggest that “corporations need these people too, now more than ever.” He has three ideas on how companies can help foster this cross-functional skill building:

  • Turn discrete customer segments or geographies into P&L units, giving some autonomy to these leaders in driving their businesses and building their skills.
  • Allow for at least two types of career paths with “functional specialties” and “cross-functional generalists”, giving at least some managers a broader exposer to the organization and general management opportunities.
  • Carve out innovation incubators that will not only build new businesses but also allow for general managers to learn and grow with a smaller P&L responsibility. Ashkenas highlights that “Having entrepreneurial opportunities inside large companies will attract and retain talented people who have the inclination to run full-scale businesses.”

A friend and former colleague had recently shared with me his confusion while working for a “leader” who became upset when he asked for his help in seeking a new role within the organization.  My friend was looking for a position where he could grow his cross functional experience. Reflecting back on the situation my friend thought that his boss’s frustration stemmed not from his lack of loyalty but from the fact that his boss didn’t know how to help him because he too lacked cross-functional experience.  His boss didn’t place a value on it. For companies to get back to full throttle they are going to need leaders with general management experience.  Your not going to get that experience from spending your entire career working in a functional silo.

4 replies to “Future Business Leaders: Where Have All of the General Managers Gone?”

  1. Chad Bell | Jul 13, 2012, 8:15 am

    Excellent point about the demise of GMs. The potential solve is unique. If only large corporations saw it this way.

  2. Matt Hunt | Jul 13, 2012, 3:40 pm

    Interesting to see who made Fortune’s 2011 Top 25 Companies for Leaders… the top 4 are 1) IBM, 2) P&G, 3) General Mills, and 4) McKinsey. And always nice to see two other MN companies in the top 20 (besides General Mills) : 3M at #16 and Cargill at #17. While GE had dropped to #7, it is usually the same names on the list because they all the view leadership development as a strategic priority and the invest in it. http://management.fortune.cnn.com/2011/11/03/top-companies-for-leaders/

  3. Todd Chervany | Jul 23, 2012, 11:11 am

    I agree with the premise and like Ron’s ideas. Larger companies certainly benefit from specialists but they also need “GMs” at multiple levels who can sythesize functional ideas/concerns and solve comprehensive business problems. But just having such roles and development tracks isn’t sufficient; the corresponding culture must be in place and reinforced consistently. The GMs must truly be given the autonomy necessary to run their businesses. And the specialists — while ensuring a good give-and-take — must have an appreciation for the benefits (and acceptance of the costs/trade-offs) of such an approach.

  4. Matt | Dec 19, 2012, 10:31 am

    There was another interesting article on the role of a “generalist” from a tech perspective – http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20121219153338-4444200-the-myth-of-the-generalist

Leave a comment. Comments from first-time registrants are moderated.

Signup for Matt's Periodic Updates

Receive periodic email updates from Matt Hunt including his published pieces, updates on his progress, and more!