Last week a young General Manager that I’m mentoring asked me about my experience as General Manager and what I had learned from my failures and successes. It was an interesting exercise to go back 15 years and review the ups and downs of my career.
The first question that I asked myself was why do companies need a General Manager and what is he or she there for? If I had to choose only one answer and had only one paragraph to explain it, I would say that the GM is responsible to communicate, explain, and motivate the team to execute the company’s strategy. Sometimes the GMs participate in the strategy definition, quite often they get it from their Board. What is not acceptable is a GM that doesn’t know it (or doesn’t understand it), or even worse, that doesn’t agree with it. The General Manager has to drive the organisation in the direction set up in the company’s Vision, respecting the company’s Values, in order to accomplish its Mission. It might sound too academic, but it is absolutely key. Seneca already said it two thousand years ago: “If one doesn’t know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable”.
But what then if the company doesn’t have a strategy? This will very seldom be the case. What is common, though, is that this strategy is not expressed in clear words that can be easily communicated. Sometimes they are inside the brain of a very successful owner, that has brilliantly managed his or her business for decades, but it is not written anywhere. Companies that change their course of action too often don’t have a very high survival rate (it is always good to remember that worldwide the vast majority of companies don’t last for more than just one year). Most survivors, meaning companies that have been in the market for at least some years, do have at least an implicit strategy. If it is not written, it is one of the first roles of the GM to ask (or help) their Board or shareholders to put it down to words. Then translate it into a plan that the organisation can buy in.
When I had my first experience as GM, one day the CFO told me: “Maurício, you go too fast. You risk to end up alone, with nobody around you”. This was one of the most valuable criticism that I got at that time. It was a lesson learned the hard way. It is not enough to explain, to motivate, to debate, to control, recheck… You will have to do it time and again. Be persistent and advance step by step. As a leader, the GM has to convince the team, win their hearts. There will always be doubts whether the company (i.e., the management) is doing the right thing, specially when a new strategy has just been issued and it means changes. Organisations are difficult to change, people are afraid to change, even when everybody wants a change! So, make sure that you are really leading your team and that they are with you. You can’t make things happen alone. And make clear what is expected and what the red lines are. Last but not least, be consistent. Those rowing in the right direction should be rewarded (sometimes a nice e-mail makes wonder), those building walls need to understand that this will not be tolerated. Talk, talk and talk to your people. Well, this is the second best advice, the best one is listen, listen, listen.
Of course a top GM has to have a good plan and has to be outstanding in executing it. Execution is most of the time the number one key success factor. But again, the key resource in execution is the human one. The more I think about business management, the more I am convinced that in fact we are talking about people management. Going back to my first experience as GM, at that time I had a person in my team that was really sabotaging everything we were trying to implement. It became clear to me that it was a hopeless case, and in the first opportunity I fired this person. That made a big positive difference on the local level. However, this employee had lots of contacts in the headquarters and made sure to put some key people against me before leaving the company. That became a particularly difficult situation to manage. Remember this: for good and bad, people are multidimensional. If you focus only on one aspect, you will miss important things in the picture.
We can also make mistakes on the opposite direction. The three nicest things to do as a GM are to hire people, promote them or give them a salary increase. I was particularly lucky when I think that most people that I have hired or promoted could develop nice careers on their own. However, one wrong decision can create a lot of damage. Again, I have a particular person in mind when I write this. And it could be that it takes us too long to recognise that the person that we have hired or promoted is not that good. Other people will see it faster than we will. For me the learning was to always try to build trust with my team so that they feel comfortable to address sensitive issues, including constructively criticise a colleague – something that is very tricky most of the time. This is an important type of feedback, but very difficult to get.
The above reminded me of another learning after moving so often to new positions or businesses: a new manager has the right to make mistakes, specially when he or she is new in the job. First, in our professional lives we have to deal with so many unknown factors, that it is just not realistic the idea of zero mistakes (to repeat the same mistake is evidently less acceptable); secondly, those that are afraid to make mistakes will be afraid to act, and a manager has to act and to make decisions. Mistakes will happen, and this has three consequences:
- Do motivate people that report to you to make decisions and accept that sometimes they will make mistakes; when mistakes happen, talk to them.
- The sooner a mistake is identified and corrected, the lessen its negative impact; just don’t try to sweep the mistakes under the carpet, they have to be talked about and the organisation must learn from them.
- Be open to criticism. Thank your people, your colleagues or bosses for telling you that you are wrong. Listen to them carefully. In few occasions you might think that their criticism is unfair. Most of the times intelligent people learn from criticism.
Reading the above I realize how important people management is in the role of General Managers. This includes communication with all stakeholders, internally and externally. The GM will very often feel alone. It is part of the job. Trying to keep all doors opened and as many communication channels working as possible, as well as having a solid and motivated team will make all the difference.