Filling the Leadership Pipeline – Chapter 3
Amy Kates and Diane Downey
Editor: Robert B. Kaiseer
Center for Creative Leadership, 2005

There may be nothing more important to an organization’s succession efforts than building a strong cadre of general managers. Yet making the transition to the general manager role is fraught with difficulty. It is at this point where many successful careers derail (McCall & Lombardo, 1983; Shipper & Dillard, 2000). According to the Corporate Leadership Council, turnover among newly hired executives within the first three years of taking a new job is as high as fifty percent (as cited in Sweeny, 1999). Arthur Freedman’s previous chapter explained myriad psychological challenges involved in managerial promotions. We will use the “pathwaysand-crossroads” framework he described in Chapter 2, as well as introduce some additional considerations to enrich the model. And whereas Freedman described how to apply the framework to transitions to the CEO level, we focus on the transition to the general manager role.

We define the general manager position as involving broad, overall responsibility for a line of business or set of functions. It is the first level of management where managers have to lead other managers without first-hand knowledge of their disciplines. In many organizations, it is the first step into the executive ranks from middle management. For every CEO transition, there are dozens of transitions at this level. And the importance of these general manager transitions is obvious: one of them is likely to be tomorrow’s CEO.

Take the case of Phil, a brilliant aerospace engineer at a client organization. In just fifteen years after graduate school he had been rapidly promoted up through the technical ranks until he was a head of engineering at a large defense contractor. Two years ago he was promoted from a functional manager to vice president in charge of a new product line. But Phil was unable to make the leap from being a functional manager to a cross-functional leader at the general manager level. The product launch was a failure, and Phil’s credibility in the company suffered. Within eighteen months, he had left to go back to an engineering job at a smaller company. The shame of it was that Phil’s general manager career at the defense contractor didn’t have to wind up as another derailment case. For one, he wasn’t adequately prepared for the major transition. Further, he didn’t have much support from his new boss, HR, his team, a mentor, or even an outside coach as he made the move. And with a vague sense of what he had to let go of and add on to make the leap, he wasn’t fully sure he even wanted the increase in scope and scale.

In this chapter, we delve into the specific case of new general managers, with a particular focus on what the organization (hiring managers, human resources, and talent management staff) can do to support them and maximize the success rate of these key managerial moves. We will highlight some ways that managing the transition is different for those promoted from within and external hires. Throughout, we draw upon examples and share lessons learned from organizations we’ve studied and consulted to on the design and execution of general manager transition plans over the last ten years.

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