Joann Lublin reports in the Wall Street Journal:
Experts in information technology suddenly must supervise work that they know little about, such as finance or advertising. The hurdles have become higher as employers trim management layers, increase job specialization and demand faster results. New managers can’t devise strategy, set priorities and implement business goals unless they relinquish previous functional duties.
Just like a car stuck in gear, many functional leaders struggle to shift into a new mind-set after they become general managers.
Rising stars often advance their careers by leaping from specialized positions to first-rung executive roles that typically oversee business units.
The transition, however, can be tough. Experts in, say, information technology suddenly must supervise work that they often know little about, such as finance or advertising. The hurdles have become higher recently as employers trim management layers, increase job specialization and demand faster results, according to executive coaches and strategy consultants.
“More high-potential leaders don’t succeed at this transition than a decade ago,’’ said Michael D. Watkins, professor of leadership and organizational change at IMD Business School in Switzerland.
At least six top-tier business schools, including Harvard University and Indian Institute of Technology in India, have added executive-education programs for functional leaders moving into general management. None existed five years ago, noted Mr. Watkins, co-director of IMD’s program.
Erik Manley faced this transition dilemma in 2014 when the veteran program manager took charge of two U.S. studios at Frog Design Inc., a product-design company. For months, he said, he had difficulty delegating some duties that he could handle faster, such as writing proposals and contracts. Frog Design, best known for creating products for Apple Inc. and Sony Corp. during the 1980s and 1990s, retained executive coach Rose Fiorilli to counsel Mr. Manley for six months following his promotion.
The studio general manager is responsible for profits and about 75 colleagues in New York and Boston. Ms. Fiorilli said she regularly reminds new general managers that they can’t devise strategy, set priorities and implement business goals unless they truly relinquish previous functional duties and no longer are deep in the weeds.
With his coach’s help, Mr. Manley realized that “people are going to mess up what I think I could do correctly,’’ he said. Those apparent messes actually might be “a different way of doing something correctly.’’
Taking charge of unfamiliar territory represents another challenge for such newly appointed general managers.
Tiina Alahuhta-Kasko was the 32-year-old marketing chief of Marimekko Corp. when the Finnish design house elevated her to chief operating officer in fall 2014. The company’s brightly colored fabrics and simple floral patterns are used in garments and home furnishings.
“My personal expertise in marketing and communications helped in the (previous) leadership role,’’ Ms. Alahuhta-Kasko recalled. The new operating chief oversaw a management team that included top sales, product and creative executives. But she was less familiar with their areas.
She believes that she won trust by admitting she had plenty to learn before she could fully understand Marimekko’s operations. “As a first-time general manager, you must be open to your new team members about your not knowing everything,” and courageous about making mistakes, Ms. Alahuhta-Kasko said.
The COO and her colleagues soon updated Marimekko’s print design, development and commercialization by tying operations together and improving their efficiency, a spokeswoman said. Ms. Alahuhta-Kasko became chief executive last April.
An early foray into general management almost derailed Kelly J. Grier’s career at Ernst & Young LLP, the U.S. arm of a global business-services firm. Her recovery ultimately resulted in her 2015 promotion to managing partner of a big U.S. region.
Fifteen years earlier, the U.S. senior accounting specialist had gained a broad management role based in Europe. She managed 45 teams that performed accounting, tax and business consulting services for a Fortune 50 company in about 40 countries.
Ms. Grier’s teams resisted her push to serve the corporate client using a standardized U.S. approach because they preferred to follow their local markets’ unique needs. Excess reliance on her technical prowess “gave me undue (and inaccurate) confidence that my teams would fall into step,’’ she recollected.
Unless she led differently, she “was going to fail the assignment, pack up and go home,’’ Ms. Grier said. So she met with key senior partners and got helpful ideas about serving their client better.
Ms. Grier now oversees about 10,000 staffers in 15 central U.S. states. Her most recent advancement completed her evolution from functional expert to general leader, she noted. The shift requires “a lot more than meets the eye.’’