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Nov 30 2016
No one will pat you on the back tomorrow and say, “Good job all these years as our Technology Manager—we’re rewarding you with a promotion to chief executive officer (CEO) of the company!” Most likely, they wouldn’t even offer you the role of chief technology officer.
Why is that?
For at least one, very important reason: You haven’t proven you’re capable of—and ready for—that level of responsibility.
This is not to say that you haven’t put in a lot of time and effort to make your technology-focused function perform effectively and efficiently or that you haven’t paid attention to its importance in supporting corporate objectives.
However, simply doing a good—even excellent—job within your assigned functional area doesn’t automatically open the door for you to jump into a broader, higher-level management role. You can’t skip critical steps.
Differences between Functional and General Management
Before you can expect to make the leap from functional to general management, you need to comprehend some key differences between the two levels.
- Functional managers might collaborate with colleagues across the organization to achieve organization goals. However, their primary focus centers on enhancing the operation of their assigned area, such as marketing, finance, or information technology.
- General managers must stay on top of activities across the entire organization. Often, they manage the organization’s profit-and-loss (P&L), and they need to build/lead a top-quality management team that follows through on their leadership direction.
- Functional managers usually report to the next higher level, such as a director or vice president (depending on the size and structure of the company). In most cases, they have limited autonomy within their assigned function.
- General managers might report to the highest level in the company—usually, the CEO—or they might be the highest-level person. They would definitely have more autonomy than a functional manager, but still not total. Even a CEO doesn’t have complete autonomy in many cases, because he/she is responsible to a board of directors and company shareholders.
Regardless of the level, certain expectations have undoubtedly been established for your performance. If you’re a functional manager, those are probably benchmarked against a set of criteria for quantified/measurable results that your function must achieve.
Once you advance to a general management role, the expectations become more demanding and tougher to meet. The increased scope of your position requires attention to activities that tend to be more strategic than tactical. They could involve initiatives to increase the company’s market presence, outperform the competition, or identify opportunities to grow the company either organically or inorganically (through M&A, for example).
So How Can You Make the Leap to General Management?
Let’s take a step back for a moment—not literally, but in terms of looking at the size and nature of the challenge, along with actions you need to execute:
- One key principle is that you must have proven your worth in previous roles—not intermittently but consistently over time. If you’re an unknown quantity or, worse, have a spotty record, you won’t inspire higher-ups to consider you for a more senior position.
- You’re allowed to have made some mistakes in the past, but they shouldn’t have been “fatal” to a company’s well-being or created such a negative backlash that they hang around your neck like the albatross in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
- You must have established a record of leaving each position in noticeably better shape than it was when you came on board. Ideally, your contributions will include situations where you went “above and beyond” the normal scope of your position.
- If you haven’t already established a strong professional network—both within and outside your current company—that’s a critical next step. You need to have advocates who recognize and respect your value and will support your professional advancement.
Last, but certainly not least, you must want to capture the senior position and be willing to work for it. You need to have carefully weighed the potential upside and downside of holding such a position and be fully invested in giving it your absolute best effort once you get it.