Career Overview: General Management

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Corporate executive managers have gotten quite a lot of recognition during the past decade or so. First in the go-go 1990s, when seemingly every public company's stock was on its way to the moon, and the press looked upon CEOs and other corporate-executive types as the new rock stars. And more recently, in the years since, a time in which corporate America has been rocked by scandal after scandal, and many of the same executives who were looked on as geniuses in the 1990s have became infamous for their greedy ways. (Martha Stewart, anyone?)

Executive managers are the people at the highest levels of the company. They chart the company's strategic direction, decide on what processes the company will use to pursue that strategy, then lead the rest of the company's employees through the day-to-day tasks necessary to move the company in that direction. Working with the board of directors, who represent the shareholders of the company, they make decisions about things like what mix of products and/or services the company will sell, how the company will allocate its resources, what markets the company will go after, and how the company will finance its operations. A company's top managers include everyone from the CEO (chief executive officer), the CFO (chief financial officer), the CIO or CTO (chief information officer or chief technology officer-the head of IT), and the COO (chief operating officer) to the president, the treasurer, the controller, and the top sales, marketing, human resources, legal, and other executives.

These are the people at the top of the corporate ladder. These days, many of them achieve fame even outside the world of business (think: Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Jack Welch). Whether famous or not, most all of them have extensive experience in their industry, in their career function (e.g. the CFO typically knows accounting in and out), and/or as leaders; indeed, their knowledge about an industry and their ability to provide direction can mean the difference between an organization's success and failure. In exchange for all this responsibility, they often earn a pretty penny. We've all heard of the ridiculous sums of money CEOs at many companies make these days, but all the members of any company's executive team typically make more money than everyone else at the company. The flipside, of course-at least at public companies-is that when things don't go well for the company, the shareholders can toss the executives to the curb.

What You'll Do
For the most part, corporate executives control how an organization operates. They develop corporate structures and policies, direct and coordinate employee activities, find and develop alliances with suitable business partners, raise money to grow their organizations, and make systematic changes, as needed, to keep their businesses profitable. Without their guidance, a company could flounder.

Executive managers are expected to see and understand the big picture. The health of a company rests firmly on their shoulders. They develop the strategies that will result in success or failure for their organizations.

The top execs also need to be their companies' biggest advocates. They communicate the value of their organizations to the outside world, telling the press why people should care about their products, marketing, strategy, and goals. Employees, strategic partners, shareholders, and even a company's chairperson rely on the executive management team to promote the company's interests at every turn. These top managers give their subordinates a reason to want to work for them. They instill a sense of pride in shareholders.

Small businesses and startups often have limited management teams. The founders, who take on the titles of CEO and president, typically lead such companies. As a company grows and departmentalizes, the executive management function is divided into a family of positions.

While the CEO and president remain committed to the overall mission of the organization, other positions have more specialized responsibilities. Some examples are the chief operations officer (COO), chief financial officer (CFO), chief technical officer (CTO) or chief information officer (CIO), and general manager (GM). Underneath them are department heads who run specific areas of an organization, such as marketing or human resources. They in turn hire and oversee managers who handle the day-to-day supervision of lower-level employees.

In this way, larger corporations have developed a well-defined chain of command. Lower-level employees answer to operational managers, who oversee their daily work. Many firms have several layers of frontline and middle managers. Such supervisors are responsible for managing the functions of an organization. They set project goals, make hiring decisions, settle staff disputes, and ensure that deadlines are met.

Operational managers report to department heads who set policy and determine the goals of their divisions. Department heads answer to the executive officer who controls their area of specialty. For example, the heads of Web development and information technology usually answer to the CTO.

Executive officers work together to set the goals and policies of a corporation. Their work is overseen by the general manager or president, who supervises the entire organization. Above them is the CEO, the highest-ranking manager. The CEO is held accountable for all aspects of the business. However, the CEO still has to answer to the board of directors.

In publicly held corporations, the board is ultimately responsible for the success of an organization. Members of the board have a fiduciary responsibility to look after the stockholders' (owners') interests first and foremost. If the company begins to falter, they have the right and the duty to correct the situation using any means possible, up to and including firing the CEO or any other top executive. In some cases, the board takes control of all managerial functions until a business has stabilized.

Who Does Well
Executives can be found in every industry and organization, from publicly held companies to nonprofits and governmental agencies. Before entering management, would-be execs first need to prove themselves in their core industries. Usually, they work for a time as operations managers, then slowly work their way up the corporate ladder.

Executives can expect to be in the spotlight most of the time. Every decision they make and every policy they set is subject to scrutiny by those around them. There will be no place to hide. CEOs and presidents of large organizations are the stars of the corporate world. They receive almost as much attention and scrutiny as Hollywood movie stars.

The trade press follows an exec's every move closely. Employees and shareholders want to know the the top execs' vision for the company, their management style, and how much money they made last year. As long as profits are up, they can do no wrong. But even a slight blip in the markets can change public perception. They are often the first to be let go. However, the public dismissal of a senior executive will be padded by a large settlement offer and the exec's equity in the company-the so-called "golden parachute."


There is no completely typical path into senior management. Some executives have worked for a single company for their entire career; others had careers as investment bankers before becoming executives in industry. In general, though, they must have significant experience in industry and management. While it's possible to find executives in corporate American who don't even have a college degree, an MBA or other advanced degree from an Ivy League or top-ten school is a fairly typical pedigree for those who end up in these positions at Fortune 500 companies.

Successful top managers have a variety of styles. Some are charismatic leaders who inspire their employees to reach their highest potential. Others are excellent behind-the-scene operators who delegate authority to their managers. Most successful executives have developed strong written and oral communication skills, the ability to make others feel at ease, and a strong, focused sense of purpose. Furthermore, they know how to get things done and aren't afraid to rock the boat to do so.

Long hours and extended travel are expected. Many execs are on the road more than 90 percent of the time, visiting national and international offices, attending meetings and conferences sponsored by associations, monitoring operations, meeting with customers, and attending trade shows.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, positions for top executives will grow at about the same rate as jobs overall between 2004 and 2014. But competition for these positions is always competitive. These roles have a high profile and pay well, often with significant bonuses and stock ownership accompanying six-figure salaries. (At Fortune 500 companies, salaries often start at the seven-figure level). The best opportunities will go to managers who have proven track records for improving their company's efficiency and competitive edge. Beware, however, because managers who fail to perform are often let go after short tenures.

If you can manage to make your way to a top management position, you'll be in a comfortable place career-wise. High-level execs receive many corporate perks, including spacious offices, administrative support, large severance packages, and subsidized worldwide travel. The hours can be long and pressure intense, but the financial incentives are commensurately rich.

Career Tracks

The responsibilities of people in these roles vary depending on the size and type of the organization. Smaller companies and startups usually have a few key executive positions. As an organization grows and diversifies, senior management duties will be broken up into a family of positions, which become increasingly specialized as the business grows larger. Many large companies have management-training programs, where college graduates rotate through different company divisions, gaining the background and perspective on different functions necessary to succeed as executive managers. The following are descriptions of positions you can find in most publicly traded companies.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
A CEO is the highest-ranking manager in a company. Most are offered near-total autonomy in handling the day-to-day affairs of their organizations. All staff members work under their authority.

CEOs of publicly traded companies must answer to a board of directors. The board sets the standards by which a CEO must live. Board members can order a CEO's dismissal if they feel that he or she is not meeting the objectives they've set.

A CEO has to have a clear vision for the future of the company, and express that plan to employees, shareholders, and business partners, inspiring them all with confidence. CEOs must be able to raise money by getting venture capitalists to buy into their dreams, or Wall Street to underwrite a bond offering worth hundreds of millions of dollars. When necessary, CEOs will ruffle feathers. They know how to get things done and are willing to do whatever it takes.

Some CEOs are more involved in their companies than others. In small organizations, the CEO may be part of day-to-day operations. Other CEOs concentrate on promoting their companies by giving speeches, attending trade shows, cultivating the press, and acting as evangelists for their companies. They leave the direct management work to the president and general manager.

Working directly under the CEO, the president manages the daily operations of a company. While the CEO is the organization's superstar, the president works behind the scenes to make sure nothing gets bogged down in operations. He or she understands the corporate structure, how the industry is shaped, and what the primary objectives of the company are. The president interprets the vision expressed by the CEO and puts it into language that can be followed by everyone within the organization. Most of the president's time is spent working with other executive officers, particularly the COO. Together they ensure that the company's main goals are being achieved. The president's job is demanding and full of pressure. Those who succeed in it are often promoted to the CEO level.

Chief Operations Officer (COO)
The COO works directly under the president and CEO. His or her primary job responsibility is to oversee department heads and other key executives. Together they establish the operational policies for an organization. The COO makes sure everything runs smoothly. As needed, he or she provides reports on operational functions.

While the chief operations officer's role is crucial, it is not one that receives a lot of press. As long as operations go as expected, the COO is left to his or her own devices. Successful COOs can be promoted to president or CEO.

General Manager
General managers fill a role similar to that of the president and COO. Typically, GMs work for manufacturing companies and oversee their day-to-day operations. They spend most of their time in the office, working with department heads and other chief executives. Their primary function is to understand how their businesses operate and how to achieve or maintain their long-term economic viability. GMs analyze financial data and are responsible for producing profit and loss statements. They directly oversee the product development, operations, finance, sales, marketing, and purchasing departments. GMs answer directly to the president, or possibly the CEO, and are often first in line for such positions if they become available.

Most GMs are seasoned managers with strong financial backgrounds. They may have worked at various positions within their organizations. At the very least, potential applicants must have significant industry experience. As with any other executive position, general managers are expected to perform at all times. Any decline in profits can lead to their termination.

Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
The CFO is responsible for managing and analyzing all the financial resources of an organization. He or she works with the CEO and other chief executives to plan and implement strategies that will maintain the company's success. CFOs determine how much capital their companies need to have on hand to operate properly. They also reinvest corporate profits in safe, but lucrative, business opportunities. Some other possible responsibilities include raising capital, acquiring or merging with other businesses, taking a company public, and analyzing changing tax laws.

CFOs usually have extensive accounting and finance backgrounds. They are detail oriented and highly analytical. Possible promotion opportunities include becoming a COO, general manager, or president.

Chief Technology Officer (CTO)or Chief Information Officer (CIO)
CTOs and CIOs develop an organization's short- and long-term information technology goals. A CTO or CIO must keep abreast of technological developments in his or her industry, develop technology-related product strategies, evaluate development options, establish strategic partnerships, negotiate licensing arrangements, and manage all intellectual property-related matters. CTOs and CIOs work with their CFOs and COOs to determine which technologies meet the needs of employees without breaking their companies' budgets.

Besides having a strong technical background, the CTO or CIO must be an accomplished manager. The most important skill for CTOs and CIOs is the ability to analyze changing technologies and predict how future advances will affect a company's business model.

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