Collecting all the Cards
Often when I talk to people who aspire to become a general manager they will tell me that they are striving to get experience in every function to prepare themselves.
This is a mistake that I refer to collecting all the cards…
I’ll get experience in Marketing, and Product Development, and Supply Chain Management and Customer Service, and on and on…then I’ll be ready and qualified to become a General Manager or CEO.
The mistake here is that what is required is to make sure you have the ability to MANAGE those functions effectively, not to DO all those functions personally.
Don’t try to learn everything first
Trying to learn everything takes too much time — and while you are doing it, people see you in the weeds, working and learning stuff at the level below.
You end up wasting time, maybe years, and working against your self as 1. You are not learning the right stuff, and 2. You are not being associated with General Manager level work and thinking.
And more importantly, even with all that investment of energy, you are not learning the one thing that you MUST learn to be qualified which is:
How do I manage those functions well and make tradeoffs among them?
How to be credible
The one question I get all the time is, “If I don’t have personal experience in a function, how will my team think I’m credible if I do not understand their work as well as or even better than they do?”
This is an idea you must let go of if you want to advance.
The way you become credible is by becoming a great leader, not by competing with your team to prove who is smartest in the detail.
You build credibility by creating an environment where your team can do great work. Where they can step up, grow, and thrive. You develop stars in your team. You get all the obstacles and crap out of the way so that they can succeed fast.
Then the next question becomes, “Well if I’m not going to be adding value to the work my team does — then what exactly should I be doing?”
Working at the Executive Level
As an example, you need to learn now to manage the Supply Chain manager, not manage the Supply Chain itself. That looks something like this:
- What does she need to be successful?
- How should you measure that function?
- What are the risks you should be aware of?
- What are the best practices in the industry?
- What industry connections can you make that give you access to the best new ideas and technologies that combine supply chain, product development and marketing?
- How well is the sales forecasting process supporting supply chain efficiency or creating risk?
You will not learn these important general manager things by learning the guts of each of those functions.
You will learn them — by learning them! …
You will working in the right way by letting your team do the heavy lifting on the content of the work while you do the heaving lifting on the cross-functional and external learning, leading, communicating, strategy, tradeoffs and resources.
Sales Experience is worth the time
One caveat: All aspiring executives can benefit from personally spending some time in a sales role.
Spending time in the field changes you forever. You learn from the front line how the business truly works. And after you personally live the natural disconnect that occurs between corporate and the field, together with your direct customer experience, you will be a smarter, more effective and more decisive executive. It might also help you win the job.
Trust yourself to learn as you go
A key idea here is to realize that one of the things that distinguishes the people who attain CEO and general manager roles is that they are willing to step into the job without having ALL the experience.
Remember, everyone who has been a CEO, has been a CEO for the first time.
Every one. There is no way that a CEO can be as smart in every function as the team. The CEO needs to be the CEO.
And when they first step into the role, there is no way they they can know in the beginning everything they need to know be a good CEO — because that work simply does not exist at the next level down.
At some point you need to trust yourself to jump in, learn as you go, and add value at the right level to build your credibility and lead your team.
And always remember, all executives are bluffing at some point. Don’t hold yourself back artificially because you want to learn everything first. That’s not what gets you the job, and it’s not what prepares you to succeed in the job.
Want some help?
If you would like some help on improving your executive level confidence and approach, check out my my Executive Mentoring Group. It’s filled with resources and support to advance your career and includes direct mentoring from me. And there is a free trial if you are interested in exploring.
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)