Managing the What, The How and the Why
The natural progression of a career often leads from a task-oriented position to a functional management position managing task-oriented people, and eventually to a general management position in which you are now “managing the managers.” This last step is often the most difficult.
For example, as co-authors Kevin Kaiser, Michael Pich and I.J. Schecter explain in their book Becoming a Top Manager, one of the core challenges of a general management position is the complexity of top management goals. When you’re a functional manager, goals are rather clear: tasks are defined, and unambiguous indicators determine whether or not those tasks have been achieved successfully. A top-level manager, on the other hand, has the responsibility of ensuring the short- and long-term value to the firm of activities and results, an objective that does not lend itself to easily defined indicators. In other words, the authors explain, general managers must not only concern themselves with the functional “what” but also the more strategic “how” and “why.”
The authors offer a unique manual on how to become an executive, based on their academic knowledge and experience combined with the crowdsourced knowledge and experience gathered from past participants of INSEAD’s executive education program.
Becoming a Top Manager is built around three fictional general managers who have just moved into their new roles. Each chapter consists of three scenarios involving each of the fictional general managers. Each scenario, presented in the form of a dialogue, is followed by comments from the executive education alumni, based on the scenario. The comments are grouped by general themes, which form key lesson points for readers. The authors offer additional thoughts and then move on to the next scenario with the next fictional manager.
The result is a potent mix of theoretical situations and real-world experience on the specific challenges faced by first-time executives.
How to Listen and Be Heard
For example, former functional managers may not have the savvy and skills required to influence and persuade others — one of the key skills of any successful executive. At the same time, general managers must be prepared to “learn how to learn” — to recognize that they will have to leave their comfort zones and listen objectively to what others are saying.
In one of the scenarios of the first chapter, the new general manager, “Nancy,” is startled and confused by another manager’s concerns about the value of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). The other manager believes more thought should be given to long-term value than simply “hitting targets.” Long-term value, Nancy argues, cannot be achieved without short-term targets.
Among the comments from the executive education practitioners was general support for a combination of the two managers’ positions (e.g., “Most companies don’t do a good job of explaining how short-term targets fit into a larger mission”), recognition of the difficulty of leading change, as a new general manager, (e.g., “As a leader you need to… help shape programs while defending them to the people reporting to you”), and a mixed assessment of KPIs. “My company used KPIs. I found them totally counterproductive and I tried to insist that we stop using such metrics, or use them differently,” wrote one participant. “KPIs are essential to measure the true effectiveness of an organization. However, too many indicators don’t tell you if you are going to hit a roadblock or run out of gas soon. KPIs are efficient if they are aligned with a list of defined objectives for the company and they remain coherent from the executive team to those in the field,” wrote another.
As the authors explain in their discussion, in this case, “Nancy must find a way to fully appreciate what her colleague is trying to explain to her about the tendency of KPIs to drive short-term behaviors at the expense of long-term value creation.”
Using the experiences of three fictional managers to spark the contributions of the executive education participants is a brilliant method for bringing out the practical implications of the theory. The granular, real-world comments from practitioners combined with the ability of the authors to superbly synthesize the lessons from the scenarios and the responses lead to a first-class owner’s manual for the first-time executive.