How to Make the Move Up to General Manager

Four Things to Consider Before Taking the Next Step

By Published on .

For all the arguments calling for longer tenure, a majority of marketing leaders aren't intent on being career CMOs. Most aspire to trade their functional experience and take a chance on general management.

In a recent Spencer Stuart study of 500 marketing executives across industries, only 30% want to be a CMO, while 70% of respondents have long-term aspirations of becoming general managers.

It's not an outlandish goal. Broad cross-functional complexity, tied directly back to P&L results, often makes a marketing career a natural route to general management.

After years of planning, implementing and evaluating marketing programs, should general management be your next step? Here are some things to consider:

Know the role
The marketing professional is a cross-functional crusader, bringing good marketing ideas to the organization and trying to sell them, often at the expense of other functions, in the battle for scarce resources. At the same time, general managers are the arbitrators for those same scarce resources and need a deep understanding of each function of the enterprise to make tradeoff decisions that truly generate overall business results.

If you are considering moving into general management, it is important to strengthen a few necessary skills, including your understanding of each functional discipline.

Build the right experience
Marketers have an ideal day-to-day forum to learn other business functions. Take advantage of this opportunity and build an understanding of each function's approach to the business. Ask yourself: What are each function's success metrics? What are the key leverage points for driving those metrics? What are the most common obstacles to success in each function?

As you are digging for more information and working with different functions, you also will be building your perceived credibility. This foundation will be critical to your acceptance by the functional teams the day you take on a general manager's role.

It also will be the beginning of a formula you can use to identify the cross-function points of alignment and dissent you will have to address as a general manager.

Get onboard properly
Marketers often reveal that the biggest obstacle for moving from marketing into general management is that marketers are not perceived as broad and deep businesspeople. Prove this stereotype wrong. Immediately reset your behaviors to reflect your cross-functional responsibility. This is important for two reasons: The "real" reason is that you play a different role now; the "perceived" reason is that others need to see you and respond to you differently.

Spend an equal amount of time with each of your new function teams. Learn their business issues. Get to know them and establish a trusting business relationship.

All of your decisions should be viewed through a truly objective cross-functional perspective. And do so in a way that all functions easily can observe the difference.

Think about staying put
Of course, not all marketers want to be general managers, and some who become general managers want to return to their marketing posts. Of the marketers in the Spencer Stuart survey who stayed in marketing, 59% did so because they truly had a passion for marketing. Twenty percent of marketers who stayed said marketing's increased visibility and influence motivated them to stay put.

In the end, of course, what's most important about choosing your next leadership role is that it enables you to be passionate about connecting what you do and how it drives the business. So choose wisely.
Jerry Noonan leads Spencer Stuart's global Hospitality & Leisure. Prior to joining the firm, he was CMO at
In this article: