Forever a GM; Never the CEO?

General Manager seems like an anachronistic term in our ‘era of hyperspecialization’[1], but New Zealand seems adamant on retaining the term, although, perhaps in a confusing and ironic manner, often for more specialised roles – e.g. General Manager, Sales and Business Development. The position of General Managers on our side of the big blue marble is also further convoluted by a more blurred sense of career progression, many GMs not tending to know where their career will take them at the end of their current tenure. We wanted to explore this idea and see if there were any underlying patterns when it came to GMs’ next steps; as such, we surveyed approximately 1,200 General Managers across New Zealand to garner their thoughts on what prospects there are for those considering their next role.

The question asked was this: Our understanding is that GMs move either into another GM role after 5 years or join the C-Suite. What do you think? Out of all of those surveyed, around half (600~) came back with their thoughts. Out of those who responded, around 78% highlighted that, in terms of personal experience, there is as much a future fog for them as there is for any outside observer. Where they could shed light, however, was that about half of these 78% felt a next role was ‘depend[ent] on the size of the [current] organization’[2] of a GM – General Managers in larger organisations being ‘easily’[3] more able to ‘remain at GM level for duration of a career’[4] as compared to working with smaller outfits – the other half suggesting that, rather than size of an organisation, a next move ‘relate[s] to which industry they are in’[5] with the IT sector – especially with ‘high growth tech’[6]– seemingly ‘churning through change’[7] and offering the most chance for transition to a C-Suite position.

Of the 22% who responded with more definite ideas of General Manager career progression, 9% saw themselves as finding another GM role at the end of current tenure, 7% saw themselves progressing to C-Suite positions – typically COO or CEO – and 6% identified other employment moves or business strategies: from taking up Director roles, consultancy roles or even setting up their own venture.

What does all of this data provide us in terms of insight then? One could say that, although it does not provide a clear answer to the initial question posed, it does point towards another avenue to explore: if General Managers themselves are uncertain of what their career prospects are in the short term, why is this the case? Is this simply because, despite the resilience of the GM position here, New Zealand is slowly being assimilated into a more Eurocentric or American state of business thinking so that C-Suite, Director or Partner titles are becoming more prevalent and this is simply a case of ‘a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet’[8]? We suspect not.

Further research needs be conducted to truly get to the bottom of the General Manager predicament, but we suspect the following three factors to play a part in current stagnation:

· Comfort/complacency (however you would like to see things as we make no qualms over a person’s placed value on their life)

· Not being ready to climb the ladder

· A lack of willingness on the part of companies to promote GMs

The first point needs no explanation: some GMs are happy where they are in their careers. Perhaps they might look to move at the end of their tenure (or earlier) for more money, more flexible working hours/time off, new challenges, etc., but the fundamental reason for not looking at a C-Suite position is that they like the sort of thing they’re doing. All credit to those that have worked throughout their life to get where they are if that’s where they want to be.

Those not in a similar position might be thinking of taking up the helm in their current company in later years or exploring greater leadership in pastures new. Either way, some GMs simply may not be ready to step up when the time presents itself. Whether it’s dependent on skills, experience, connections or even the knowledge of how best to go about clawing themselves that ideal next position, it all comes down to the same thing: a lack of preparation. That may sound controversial, perhaps even a touch harsh, but persons in a GM role don’t tend to magically fall into them: it takes a lot of time and dedication to get where they are. That begs the question: why wasn’t as much time put into setting up the inevitable metamorphosis to life post GM tenure? – after all, nobody wakes up one day having dreamt of becoming a CEO, et voila! a few weeks later they’re the ship’s captain. If GMs are looking for that change, they need to make that change! If they don’t know how to make that change, they need to ask. Ignorance is no longer a valid excuse in our world of hyperconnectivity, where you can find knowledge at your fingertips or, God forbid, a good old fashioned phone call away.

The third factor, a lack of willingness to promote internally, is arguably the biggest threat to GM progression – especially here in New Zealand; and it is a mindset that will unlikely change in the near future considering it’s engrained in the culture of a lot of businesses. For whatever reason, a lot of companies often seem reluctant to shake up the status quo when it comes to employee roles, preferring to take the if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it mindset when staff are performing in an either satisfactory or outstanding way. Whilst one could argue that this approach does help to keep things ticking over in a profitable fashion, it’s actually a counterintuitive method in the long term. It stifles any innovation in leveraging efficiency, a firm market share and all the other trimmings of successful business, but, more importantly in terms of staff, it creates a culture of resentment and leavers; and employees don’t want to stick around, waiting for an false opportunity that will never come. The issue for GMs in that sort of environment, however, is that those that leave can find themselves stuck in a swirling sea of opportunities that pass by, for good reasons or otherwise. In this sort of position, a lot of those treading water can end up grabbing any old driftwood to stay afloat – perhaps another GM role?

What would we say as a summary of our findings then? The jury is out when it comes to where GMs will go for their next role – as a typical move. Further research is needed. We would also say there needs to be a closer look had at why there may not be such a typical move and if there are further hindrances than those we have already ascribed. Is any of this important though? It’s a blunt question, but one worth asking. We would say yes because we always advocate for reviewing the salinity of the talent pool. Without a push to ensure progression throughout industries, you waste the abilities of exceptional individuals; but when you have that flow which enables the best to be their best, there is a knock on effect which not only supports the right people, but positively impacts the rest of the business ecosystem.


[1]Thomas W Malone, The Big Idea: The Age of Hyperspecialization,, (Boston: Harvard Business Publishing, 2011). [2]Anonymous, GM Survey, email, (Auckland: TheExecutiveAgency, 2019). [3]Ibid. [4]Ibid. [5]Ibid. [6]Ibid. [7]Ibid. [8]William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 61.