What Makes a Good General Manager?

While living in Singapore a few years ago, I got a call from a local business magazine seeking a quote on whether businesses need more managers (bosses) or leaders. I typed up my response on my iPhone while waiting in the airport and sent it in, and it later got published. Here is the quote: “We need bosses who are also seen as leaders. Managers are typically associated with being more tactical, strong willed with a direct approach to getting things done. In the competitive world we live in today, we need leaders who are both strategic and yet tactical, delivering results while approaching issues with a sense of purpose.”

The classic definition of a general manager (GM) is succinctly summarized (Sayles, 1979) as one who is responsible for planning, delegating, coordinating, staffing, organizing, and decision making to attain desirable profit-making results in an organization. This again comes across as very tactical in nature.

Four times in my professional life I’ve been put in an environment where I had to restructure a business that was not performing either strategically or financially. In each case, we had to simplify the organizational structure and the business operating model while creating new business units with strong leaders at the helm. This strong leader is of course our proverbial general manager, who brings both strategic and tactical management to the business to create value for all stakeholders. Every time I went through this restructuring program, we made tremendous progress and saw strong results, but it was less to do with restructuring itself and more to do with the leaders and the operating principles we put in place. 

You must be a leader of the business and a leader of people. A leader of business knows what to do. A leader of people knows how to get it done. —Ram Charan

Not all organizations have the luxury of building general management leadership capabilities within the company from the ground up. As Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of defense, once said, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” In my case, I had to pick our GMs from our existing team, and with the right coaching, motivation, and training, we were able to build solid operating managers over time.

That brings us to the next big question: What makes a good GM? What skills and traits are most valued in this role? As much as this role is associated with being tactical and focusing on delivering profits while managing costs, there is more to it than that. The general in the GM title means one must generally know and have more tangible skills in various aspects of the business than just the ability to deliver financial results. Whether you are a CEO, COO, President, or plain vanilla GM, the scope remains the same: develop strategy, deliver financial results, engage customers and employees, take care of the environment and community, and finally, create value for all stakeholders.    

There is no shortage of advice out there on how to become a good GM. Books have been written and MBA curricula are developed to pump out great GMs to the business world. As I say, you always need to know a handful of things about any aspect of the business to be good at it. There are at least three things in my mind that makes an exceptional GM, and they are listed below.

Strategic Clarity

As a GM, you are hit with multitudes of business challenges, opportunities, and people issues every single day. Thinking clearly about all this and making decisions with limited data and information is critical to the overall success of the organization. Good leaders bring strategic focus to the business by worrying about the vital few instead of the many trivial options that exist. Good managers align internal resources, whether human or financial capital, to a few must-wins and then back them up aggressively. Finally, they always have a plan for the worst-case scenario.  

In all the GM roles I held in the past, I developed either a skinny or a detailed version of a strategy for the business. Managers need to know their customers, their competition, and industry trends to make good decisions, and there is no better way to learn that than by building the strategic plan. As part of this work, understand and anticipate the needs of the customers. It also helps to think clearly about where to play, how to win, and the path to winning. Further, one should understand the value drivers for the business, and this helps to place bets on the programs with the biggest impact and the people managing them. Finally, extracting vital points from complexity is essential to devising a path forward for the business.   

Leaders use their business acumen to reduce complexity, whether internal or external to the company, to the basics of money making. They relish the mental challenge. —Ram Charan

Managers shape and reshape the direction of the business based on all the external factors. Not all reshaping requires a big organizational change. They constantly think of combining scale, speed, and innovation to achieve strong results for the business despite all the odds.  

Efficient Operator

Building strategy, defining goals for the team, developing performance metrics, maintaining weekly and monthly operating rigor, and holding the team responsible for delivering results are all boring things. What I have learned from my experience is that a relentless focus on doing the boring things with consistency and passion, while ignoring the exciting but non-value-added programs, will drive results. 

What’s boring doesn’t get attention and what’s exciting doesn’t drive results. Most people are so focused on optics they forget that it’s the repetition of the boring basics that makes a difference. —Anonymous

Strong managers pay close attention to where the resources are allocated, they are very clear about the scope of individuals and teams, and they are good at painting the end state. They have mental maps of processes and operating frameworks from past experiences to achieve the goals. Once the resources are allocated, the scope is clearly defined, and then it is all about relentless execution—weekly, monthly, quarterly. Leaders should be biased toward actions, act with a sense of urgency, and set the pace and process to maintain operating effectiveness.  

Without execution, the breakthrough thinking breaks down, learning adds no value, people don’t meet their stretch goals, and the revolution stops dead in its tracks. What you get is a change for worse, because failure drains the energy of the organization. Repeated failure destroys it. —Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan

Good managers not only improve the efficiency of the operation but look for waste and reduce complexity—whether it be too many meetings or inefficient use of material on the manufacturing floor. Managers look for organizational capabilities to improve performance and win in the marketplace.  

Personal Leadership

What brings it all together is the personal leadership one exhibits while leading the team. Strong leaders set high standards for themselves and their team. They set goals that are stretched but achievable. They have not only a strong inner drive to succeed but also a strong work ethic, which motivates others to follow or decide not to follow. 

Decisive managers do not agree with mediocre performance on their team, they make quick decisions about people, and they are open to making unpleasant decisions after seeking input from others. Making unpleasant decisions does not make you a popular person, but that is not the goal of a good leader. What really matters is how the unpopular decisions were discussed, debated, and acted upon—which is all part of a good change management process. 

Anyone who has managed large teams knows that people issues take up a lot of one’s energy, but good managers adapt their style and approach to match the needs of different individuals, teams, and situations. It is relatively easier for one person to adapt to multiple styles than for multiple people to all align with one leadership style.

Managers are ready to make tough calls on people when required. Judging who will work best in which slot is one of a manager’s key tasks. Like so many aspects of top jobs, this requires intuition, experience, and the ability to judge people and their motivations. When it comes to people decisions, you will not get it right all the time, but if you get it right six out of ten times, you are good at making people decisions. Finally, managers must know when to coach and when to give tough love. 

A sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have but how many leaders you create. —Mahatma Gandhi

Managers keep tight control over their calendar and manage their time effectively. If there is a simple rule of thumb for managing your time, it’s dividing your time equally between strategic focus areas, managing business, and all aspects of customer experience and employee engagement. Good managers keep their meetings short and infrequent. They listen more and talk less. They summarize meetings and actions coming out of any interaction.  

The days of desk thumping, shouting, screaming, and using one’s title and position to drive results are gone. As Richard A. Davis mentions in his book, The Intangibles of Leadership, it is critical for executives to be in control of their emotions. Unplanned or unintended emotional outbursts can have deep and detrimental effects on both the individual and the organization.

Good managers take good care of their body and mind—which is essential for making good decisions. Taking care of your body through good exercise and diet is crucial to a healthy mind. If you ask a high performing manager what keeps them awake at night, they are likely to say nothing because they get a good night’s sleep, which is essential for maintaining good energy during the daytime. Quieting the mind at the beginning of the day helps clear the clutter and chatter and allows you to make smart decisions throughout the day.

Bottom Line

Sometimes leadership is overhyped and presented as something ethereal. Good leaders are good managers, and good managers are good leaders. The tactical aspects of leadership should not be underestimated. Value creation does not happen in a vacuum. Leaders should develop skills to be strategic yet tactical, inspiring yet holding teams responsible for delivering results. More importantly, good managers are good human beings, and they bring inspiring personal leadership to the team. Personal traits of self-energy, humility, a strong work ethic, and a sound moral compass allow managers to be good leaders as well. 

Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things. —Peter Drucker