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How to Think Like a General Manager

Maura is a Pittsburgh native with strong self-awareness. In 2006, she was selected to participate in a Comcast high-potential program. It was a challenge for her to reinvent self, others, and the business. It was a challenge for her to question 29-year-old habits and to figure out how to achieve new levels of success. But Maura opened her mind to thinking differently and acting differently. After conversations with her manager and her mentor, she was determined to reinvent something. But what? Then it came to her. A simple phrase, no longer than a bumper sticker slogan, was uttered by Maura’s colleague, and she was forever changed. Three words: cross-functional love. It wasn’t something she was used to hearing in any business environment, let alone at Comcast. 

Maura was managing a business that was in flux. New products were being rolled out. New processes had to be defined to support the products. Employees wanted to do a good job but were excited, confused, and overwhelmed. The changes were definitely seen as the right thing to do, but making the changes a reality was not going as planned. Maura began to talk to her peers from other departments about what was working and what was not. 

She formed informal focus groups with a standard list of questions and a commitment to herself to not solve or defend within the focus group. As she aggregated the feedback, one big change people commented on was the number of new departments and the fact that each department had its own goals. The missing link had been discovered. 

People were well-intentioned and working hard but not cross-functionally aligned. Maura had now defined the problem but needed to dig deeper for potential solutions. In Comcast’s leadership program, she learned about research that shows management creates 85 percent of the issues that cause frontline employees to not achieve productivity goals. To further diagnose this situation, Maura conducted additional focus groups with groups of frontline employees. She still wanted to see what was working and what was broken, but this time she wanted to engage the group in reinventing the business. Maura had now become a facilitator of change rather than just a manager of it. She led by asking questions of each department. How could they work together cross-functionally to improve their daily tasks? How could they further affect the customer experience and Comcast’s bottom line? 

This process opened Maura’s eyes to how reinventing the business and reinventing others can work together. She started to think about products, profits, service, and employees as they related to the whole system, not just her department. The effect was very different from a single process or technology change. It was a complete cultural shift for how all Comcasters—supervisors and employees—viewed their jobs. They were now all thinking like GMs by striving to achieve common goals. 

Organizations such as Vanguard force cross-functional love by asking all business unit leaders to rotate every two or three years. At one point they had an accountant who was leading human resources. Wawa, a $5 billion convenience store that Forbes ranked in 2010 as one of the 50th largest private companies, has done this as well. Their chief marketing officer used to be their chief people officer. This may seem crazy, but it drives global thought. It proves to the entire organization that success is not a solitary mindset. A self-aware leader does not hinge success exclusively on hitting her budget numbers. Cross-functional love is a potent first step, but it alone won’t generate leaders who think like GMs. Collaboration and alignment are a start, but the reinvention must go deeper. 

Critical thinking is critical 


Some people live by the mantra, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Your mantra needs to be, “If it hasn’t been broken in the last six months, BREAK IT!” Critical thinking causes leaders to question everything. Self-aware leaders should have opinions on everything. In terms of critical thinking, start by completely de-emphasizing the negative connotations of “critical.” Critical thinking is a skill that allows individuals to have the courage and confidence to thrive, even in ambiguity. Reinventors embrace uncertainty with the same confidence they display in more lucid times—with leadership. Having the courage to function in ambiguity creates high levels of intellectual stimulation. This type of stimulation sometimes scares people, especially board members and upper-level executives. Even the most naive new professional knows that can be a bad thing. So how can you embrace critical thought yet avoid career suicide? 

Here are two stats to consider: 

  • The Gallup organization estimates that 70 percent of American workers are disengaged, and disengaged workers are dramatically less productive, creative, and committed than engaged workers.
  • 42 percent of white collar workers say they aren’t entrepreneurial, citing few incentives for risk takers. (YouGov/BusinessWeek poll of 721 office workers on August 4-6, 2008.) 

Disengagement is caused by workers checking their brains at the door and having to obey orders as commanded by the management hierarchy. It’s a passive form of groupthink. Critical thinking increases engagement as ownership for decision making is pushed to the organization’s lowest level. This bucks the age-old trend of driving large decisions upward. People at all levels need to be ready, willing, and able to reinvent self, others, and the business. Leaders need to have the discipline and the courage to know what to reinvent and when to reinvent it. Some of it is skill, some of it is luck, but all of it comes from having the mental framework of critical thinking. Trust in others accelerates careers. The tendency to do things yourself and micromanage situations can be debilitating. 
Critical thinking is not something you can learn overnight, but here are the basics on how to think critically: 

Be paranoid in thought but not in action. Curiosity can lead to daydreaming, but paranoia will drive you to decide if action is needed. 

Ask probing questions that get to the root cause. President Reagan used a leadership approach he called “trust but verify.” This methodology called for asking multiple tough questions to dig below the surface and learn what was really going on. 

Assume your competition can do it better. If you think competition may force you to lose market share fast, this assumption will push you to innovate faster than planned. 

Brainstorm ways to do it faster, better, cheaper. Ask your customers and employees what they would do if they had the magic wand to change things. 

Ask if killing the initiative is better than continuing it. Examine the amount of effort on a project as compared to the return for the business. Would anyone really miss it? 


Know when you need to engage specialists instead of generalists


The Philadelphia Chapter of the Society for Human Resources Management (PSHRM) is a 1,500-member organization that is one of the five largest chapters in the country. In 2007, it had a solid board, solid balance sheet, and solid brand—but no growth strategy. Composed of only HR professionals, the board underwent a massive transformation. Under new leadership, the executive board decided it was time to grow. It defined goals to create a budget reserve, increase chapter activity, grow membership, and hire an association manager. 

The existing board quickly realized it had two challenges: It was spending the majority of its time in the tactical mode, and having only HR professionals on the board limited the chapter. Knowing that growing the chapter meant having the right type of board in place, the executive committee agreed to significantly shift the board’s makeup. The end result was a financial advisor as the finance chair, an advertising agency leader as the marketing chair, and so on. 

There are times when work calls for athletes who have incredible professional stamina and agility. These athletes can do just about anything you throw their way. But there are also times you need a specialist; someone with the exact experience for the task at hand. Effort and experience have an interesting working relationship. The PSHRM board was successful with its growth strategy. It created an infrastructure with checks and balances in place to sustain any changes in leadership or to veer away from bad leadership. Could this have been done with all HR professionals? Maybe, but it was definitely not as likely and probably couldn’t happen that quickly. 

A self-aware leader makes intentional decisions about staffing teams and running projects. A self-aware leader also understands the full work ahead of the team, not simply just the task at hand. The ability to think like a GM will better inform a leader as to what skill sets are specifically needed. The inclusion of the right mix of generalists and specialists allows the leader to not only trust in her team as people, but also to trust in her team as functional experts. 

Respect the difference between positional and influential power



Having a savvy perspective of the political landscape is critical when thinking like a GM, because your positional power may not align with your influential power. Stated another way, your thinking may be more than your title gives you access to or permission to comment upon. This becomes challenging because in your new focus on thinking cross-functionally, you also are starting to look at how others run their departments. Then you start thinking critically about how other department leaders could run their businesses better. The result is that you start to look at other leaders’ turf. And you are looking at their turf without being asked to do so, which is not always welcomed. 

A key element is humility. In 2002, Comcast began to embark on an integration strategy for the upcoming business acquisition of AT&T Broadband. It was a case of the minnow swallowing the whale and the goal was to maintain the systems, structure, and culture of the minnow’s organization even though, in certain cases, that meant taking a step backward to move forward. The term, positioned by management as the acquisition’s theme, was quiet confidence. It meant going into the integration with a great sense of humility. Comcast needed to understand that while its margins and business models were more productive than AT&T’s, arrogance was unacceptable. Comcast leadership had to respect the history and brand of AT&T Broadband, but most importantly, Comcast leadership needed to respect the people of AT&T Broadband. 

Throughout this integration, leaders were expected to have an active red pen to edit what others were doing. Yet, people who constantly edit the work of others, at some point, will stop being asked for help. Unless we approach tasks from the perspective of helping others instead of promoting ourselves or our businesses, true growth cannot occur. The leadership at Comcast often explains this as taking the business seriously, but not taking ourselves so seriously. 

Even if you are working toward more for the good of others, your intentions may not always be received as such. It stinks, but it’s true. A leader’s passion for upgrade could be misinterpreted as negative or malicious. In some cases, it’s a result of the insecurity of other leaders, and in other cases it could be due to the fact that you didn’t canvas the idea first and are now exposing the weaknesses of others. Regardless, it can be rough waters to swim, but this healthy friction can propel leaders, teams, and organizations from good to great.


Note: This article is excerpted from The Self-Aware Leader by Dan Gallagher and Joseph Costal.



© 2012 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Dan Gallagher has twenty years of leadership and organizational development experience within leading corporate and academic institutions. Since 2000, Dan has worked at Comcast, with 13 of those years at Comcast University in several leadership roles in high potential development and training across the company. He is now the Senior Vice President, Strategic Growth Initiatives at Comcast-Spectacor, where he manages training, information technology and change management tied to OneComcast-Spectacor. Dan has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in organizational development and leadership from Saint Joseph’s University. Dan served as president of the Philadelphia Society for Human Resource Management, has lectured at Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania and is an active leader in his community. In 2012 he published The Self-Aware Leader of which all proceeds will go to City Year. Dan currently sits on Advisory Boards with City Year and the National League of Cities. Dan lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and four sons.
About the Author
Joe Costal teaches English at Stockton College and Oakcrest High School in Southern New Jersey, where he was named "Teacher of the Year" in 2010. He lives "down the shore" in Cape May County, New Jersey, with his wife and four children.
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