Learning What Great Executives and General Managers Do

Last week I kicked off a series of articles about what good general managers do.

I keep finding myself talking to CEOs who are concerned that their new general managers (also directors and VP’s) just aren’t getting that they need to be working in different way now that they are in an executive level job.

New executives struggle to step up

New executives often struggle to understand that their job has become much broader and strategic, and really different!

To be successful, they need to stop worrying about the work they used to do, and they need to start worrying about growing people and capability beneath them, owning decisions, personally leading change, and driving the business forward strategically.

Here are the big things (list from last week’s post) a general manager needs to care about.

  1. Get a mentor or a coach. (don’t skip #1; broken record)
  2. As a GM, split your thinking, and budget your time into the following areas:
  • People
  • Process
  • Profit
  • Communicating

This week, the one I will be talking about is “People.”


When I am brought in to help general managers get their organizations functioning better, the first thing I do is talk to their team. I talk to all their direct reports, and have focus groups with their mid-level managers and their employees.

It often becomes very clear that the general manager is not having these same conversations!

Because I’m listening to their team’s ideas, experiences, feedback, and concerns, I’m figuring out what all the big issues are – with the organization, with the business, (and sometimes with the general manger).

Hint: Talk to your people! Learn what is really happening.

What is your job now?

When I was in my first executive role, I will admit I was sitting in the chair thinking, “hmmm, what exactly is it that I am supposed to be doing now?”

My first thought was to look at the roles of all the people who reported to me and start trying to optimize them in one way or another, but I knew that that was not the right answer. That was their job. I knew I should be doing things that spanned the whole organization, but what things, exactly?

I was lucky to have a mentor who taught me this big lesson – talk to everybody and you’ll know what to do.

Talk to everybody

This was one of the best lessons I ever got about knowing how to do a good job as a GM.

So I did this. In my first two weeks on the job I did 60 one-on-one meetings. I can tell you, I knew what my job was after that!

The scary and notable part was that if I had not done these meetings, I would have had no idea what the most vital issues to work on really were. I would have gotten bogged down in the way the organization was currently working, instead of seeing how to improve it.

When you talk to the people doing the work, you discover things you will never learn from your managers.

Never count on filtered information

It’s not that your managers are maliciously hiding information from you — but if you never experience the business from the employees, sales reps, and service people’s perspective, you won’t know what business you are in.

You won’t know what you need to be fixing, improving, inventing, or stopping.

I came to relish customer visits, not for the customer contact but for the ride in the car with the sales rep! Talking to the people doing the work shows you the way forward.

Ask everyone in your organization, “How am I doing? What would you like to see differently from me?”

Some leaders resist doing this for three basic reasons.

  1. Because they feel like they are going around the managers who report to them and this feels wrong
  2. Because ego tells them, “I am a big shot, so I don’t talk to the people doing the work, I only talk to managers,” or because,
  3. They are afraid of what they will hear and that they will lose credibility if these issues are spoken of.

Stay connected to reality

Well, I hate to break the news, but the issues are already being spoken of, and you will definitely lose credibility if you’re the only one who doesn’t know!

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Even if you want to act like a big shot and avoid these conversations, you can’t do your job without them.

Talking and listening is not going around your managers.

Make it part of the culture that you are going to spend time talking to individuals. As long as you don’t start directly assigning work to individuals without involving their manager, the managers are not offended or concerned by your having the conversations.

See what you are missing

Once I started talking to individuals I realized some important things I wasn’t seeing. For example:

  • I learned that there was one manager in my organization who was a bully. This manager was great at managing up, so I couldn’t see it.
  • I learned that there were three different projects that were duplicate efforts. I didn’t see this because my managers weren’t talking to each other about it! So that was two problems to solve, the duplication and the teamwork.
  • I learned that the customer satisfaction survey scores were high because the questions were tuned to get the right answers, not to get the real opinions of the customers. Either stop the useless survey or create an effective one.
  • I learned that employees were frustrated that a decision had not been made and they were spinning their wheels waiting for direction. But the decision had been made, so I learned that I had a communication issue.

None of this information was coming up through my direct staff. Once I started seeing this stuff, the light went on.

Know with confidence what your job should be

As an executive or GM, you can use the critical insight you gain from talking to individuals about what’s really happening to improve the business. You will be surprised just how useful the information is, and how much more effective a GM you will be once you know it.

As my roles grew to lead organizations of thousands, I could no longer talk to everybody, but I still made sure to put time in my schedule to talk to the people doing the work, either one-on-one or in groups. I did this every week.

No time for this?

You don’t have time NOT to do this.

It is always very sad when I talk to an executive or GM who tells me “everything is fine,” and then people above, below, and around them tell me they are concerned the GM is failing because they are focused on the wrong things and have lost track of reality.

Sure you will face some conflict and learn issues that make you uncomfortable as a leader. But better to know them and choose what to fix, than to assume everything is fine and get further and further out of touch with reality.

Don’t skip this!

More people stuff

Stay tuned for more articles.

As an executive or GM, one of your biggest success factors it to decide WHO? and WHY? You are no longer so much in the business of WHAT? and very much not in the business of HOW?

Your job is to develop leaders and build a highly capable and effective team that can execute. I will talk more about choosing and developing leaders in additional articles in this series in the coming weeks.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her new book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .