- IMD Business School

4 must-have general management skills to get a successful career in 2024

From vision to the nitty-gritty: general managers must be strategic and agile

General Managers are some of the most crucial members of any organization. Typically, at general management level you are overseeing multiple departments, and need to call upon many different general management skills.

There’s no question that a successful business requires strong leadership and general management. However, considering the dynamics of modern day business operations, leaders now need to develop multi-dimensional general management skills to lead effectively.

But what specific skills should you focus on if you want to become a successful general manager? Here are four essentials that every manager should strive to develop.

Discover the 4 must-have general management skills:

  1. Visionary leadership
  2. Strategic thinking
  3. Negotiation and conflict management
  4. Team-building & interpersonal skills

1. Visionary leadership

You may be thinking that visionary leadership is a rather abstract ability to list first when talking about the skills of a general manager. However, vision is one of the most important general management skills you should have in your toolbox.

For a general manager to be truly successful, visionary leadership skills are the fusion that keeps it all together. According to Professor Robert Hooijberg, Director of IMD’s Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives, visionary leaders often possess the following characteristics:

  • Visionaries often think ahead of their time
  • They are able to visualize things that do not yet exist
  • They are passionate & dedicated to transforming their vision into reality

As a general manager, your vision must include a sense of your current position as well as where you want to go. You must have clear sight both in terms of your own areas of responsibility and that of your company at large. This vision will inform your business strategy, it also affects all of the little things you and your team do every day.

How to take into account the context of the business situation

When in a general management position, you must be able to take stock of your current business context, and it is important that you have the vision to question the status quo and identify external (and internal) influences. Such as:

The vision must be something that you and the entire business organization believe in strongly enough that it inspires you and all the team members of the company.

Moreover, Prof. Hooijberg explains that visionary leadership cannot end with the general manager having just vision and keeping it to themselves. They must “communicate their passion to others to motivate them to execute their vision.” That is the leadership part of visionary leadership. It’s not just the little things you do every day. It is also why you do them. Your team members need a “why” as much as you do. It’s your job to provide it.

Read more about getting the right leadership mix to transform your organization »

2. Strategic thinking skills

This is not about dreaming. There are concrete steps to achieve your vision.

General managers must be strategic thinkers in order to take vision through to reality. They need to be able design the move. In a general management role, you must constantly keep in mind all the internal and external forces that will come into play as these moves are executed.

Strategy development and execution is often considered a roadmap. You set your course in the direction of your vision for value creation. You look at what you need to achieve along the way, goals and objectives, as well as how to measure your progress.

In fact, this action plan must also include the resources you need; such as finance and budget, human resources as well as involvement of management functions. You also need to assess your greatest strengths and identify if there are gaps to fill or compensate for before you set out your strategy and development plan.

Agile leaders “significantly out-perform other leaders on measures such as work engagement and leadership effectiveness” – IMD Professor, Michael Wade

IMD Professor Michael Wade, an expert in digital disruption, emphasizes that agility is particularly important in the digital age, when a new disruptor can hit your market at any time. Research conducted by Prof. Wade and his colleagues showed that agile leaders “significantly out-perform other leaders on measures such as work engagement and leadership effectiveness.” 

3. Negotiation and Conflict Management Skills

Aim to create win-win or you won’t.

Negotiation and conflict management skills are absolute essentials for general managers. You’re basically doing it all day long.  Your job as a general manager involves collaborating, exchanging and networking with people both inside and outside of your team and company. If you have an awareness of your approach, and that of the person in front of you, you can establish and maintain the necessary dialogue for mutually beneficial outcomes.

IMD Professor George Kohlrieser points out 6 successful strategies for negotiation and conflict management. These are the following:

  • Create & maintain a bond with the other person.
  • Establish a dialogue for negotiation.
  • Get the real issue out in the open.
  • Keep the initial cause in mind.
  • Use the concept of reciprocity for better outcomes for all.
  • Nurture a positive relationship throughout conflict.

“Conflicts are the lifeblood of high-performing organizations.” – IMD Professor, George Kohlrieser

Kohlrieser emphasizes that business managers should master conflict because it is a key source of opportunity. “As diversity and interdependency in organizations increases, there is opportunity in the potential conflict,” he explains. “Dealing effectively with these conflicts enables a company to leverage the richness of diverse perspectives for innovative outcomes. In fact, conflicts are the lifeblood of high-performing organizations.

4. Team-building and Interpersonal Skills

Because you’re nothing without your team.

A general manager must know how to delegate, and then to inspire and motivate to completion. Team-building and interpersonal skills run through every element of business management leadership. Here are some things that you must keep in mind:

  • Vision is only a dream if you only see it.
  • Strategy without a motivated & knowledgeable team will get you nowhere.
  • Negotiation without command of interpersonal skills is an opportunity lost.

Let’s have a look at your team. As a starting point, most of them arrived at the company wanting to bring value to the organization which is an intrinsic motivation. A bad boss can break that motivation, and a good boss can inspire them and draw out their best skills. This leads to happy employees, which in turn leads to employees who are better at their jobs.  It’s called inspiration. And it creates a culture of excellence.

IMD Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur asserts that  fostering intrinsic motivation is often undervalued as a managerial skill. There is much more emphasis on extrinsic motivation, that is to say rewards and penalties. He says extrinsic motivation can work; but only to a point. “One reason for an over-reliance on extrinsic motivators may be that reward and punishment systems can be relatively easy to put in place,” he writes in an article on changing behaviors. “But motivation based purely on reward and punishment is hard to sustain over time.”

So how do you tap into that initial motivation, keep it strong and draw out their best skills?

“Research on what drives this type of positive internal commitment shows that intrinsic motivation contains three essential elements: autonomy, mastery and connection,” explains Prof. Ben-Hur.

  • Autonomy: a feeling of choice, such as setting goals
  • Mastery: feeling competent
  • Connection: experiencing a sense of purpose

A good general manager recognizes what team members are good at – and lets them design and do it. Let them shine as they play their part in implementing the overall strategy. You need to lead by example – through your commitment to the vision and your willingness to apply your part in the strategy. Show also that you are willing to learn and get better, and encourage them to do the same, building their best talents through executive education and on-the-job opportunities.

Aside from what they are good at, a good team leader recognizes how team members’ personalities and characteristics impact their performance. Personality, age and culture – among infinite other personal characteristics – are all alongside functional skill in contributing to a person’s achievements.

Note that cultural intelligence is a must-have for successful managers. And consider that you may want to approach leading millennials in a different fashion compared to a traditional team.

Finally, because the team’s relationship and capacity for success is driven by the group dynamic as well as individual contributions, be fully prepared to manage conflict within the team. They will come to you – and if they don’t, you need to increase your awareness and make yourself more available – and it is your job to set the tone. A general manager is a leader.

Read more General Management articles