In your transition from a functional expert to general manager, how did you develop expertise in the unfamiliar and learn to work effectively outside your comfort zone? What changes in perspective and approach were required?
Transcend your functional role
Using functional expertise is very important as your initial contribution to the process, but you have to demonstrate an ability to go beyond—to identify key issues and solutions to those issues (that will come from others) in order to transcend your functional role. You may have credibility due to your functional expertise but you have to go beyond that or you will be labeled a "finance type" or whatever.
Develop your judgment
The key to being a GM is to develop and hone your judgment of people, behavior, and situations. This is why it takes a number of years of experience to graduate to a GM job in a corporation.
Everything is in your domain
As a general manager, you no longer have a specific area, activity, expertise to focus on. Everything is in your domain, but essentially you do policy, integrate the functions, and make decisions when choices have to be made and where there is controversy. Communication and "cheerleading" become major tasks.
Transition your thinking
While making the transition in your new role as general manager, you will encounter areas of responsibility that are unfamiliar and, therefore, often uncomfortable. When this occurs, human nature tempts you to revert back to that something that you are really good at. In the beginning it is a real struggle to let go of your functional role. Experience has shown me that many people will allow you to take on their responsibilities if you try to do so, especially if they are new to the position. Therefore, when you try to continue in your role as functional manager, your functional replacement potentially will suffer in his or her development and you will as well. Obviously, there is some training that must occur. It is this transition or training period that you must be very careful to balance. Remember that you learned a great deal on your own when you took on that functional role and you developed your own style. Be sure to give your replacement that same opportunity. This will allow you to move on to a whole new way of thinking. It was very enlightening to me to know that I was not as irreplaceable as I thought.
Embrace those other areas that are outside your comfort zone as quickly as possible. This transition of thinking is excellent preparation for the transition from functional to general management in your career.
Make time for all areas
It was easy for me to spend much more time in the new areas (for me) than in the functional area I came from. New challenges and learning and the opportunity directly guide areas I could only previously make suggestions about were strong temptations. The greater concern, at least for me, is not spending time in the areas I do not like. For me personally the action is in engineering, sales, and marketing. Operations nevertheless is important, and the people there need to feel important. You have to make time for all areas.
Rely on your direct reports
As a GM we must realize that the "General" in General Manager is a very important concept. No longer can we become experts in our functional area and strive for a perfect finished product. Rather, I would argue it is far more important to get things done in many different functional areas. It is important therefore to rely on your direct reports and experts in the functional area. You will find it necessary to sift through the detail and extraneous fluff to focus in on the important and central issue of a problem or decision. Rely on your people to do the research and legwork. You should be a sanity check.
A very different focus
An issue of great importance to future (and current) GMs is the critical nature of the term "General" that appears so innocuously in their titles. A GM is no longer the expert in the particulars of a function or a narrowly defined job; instead, s/he is the master of the WHOLE organization. That, in turn, requires a very different focus and perspective, as well as a willingness to move forward with less than perfect or complete information. The ability—and fortitude—to make decisions in such situations, and the skill at making a reasonable proportion of them correctly, is often what distinguishes effective from ineffective GM's.
Understand day to day issues
During your initial learning period with your new company, spend as much time as possible on the "plant floor" or the production area of your new company. It is critical that you truly understand the day to day issues facing your production employees. If you do not understand these issues, you run the risk of not properly "tempering" your implementation plans. If this happens you can damage your credibility very early on.
See the big picture
Maintain a general management perspective even while you are accumulating functional management experience. As experience hones "instinct," it is critical that you see the big picture even if your current function is a vertical one.
In transitioning to a new job, new firm, new people, new country, one will surely have the opportunity to make all sorts of "mistakes." These encompass the whole gamut: mistakes as to your assessment of your people and their capabilities, mistakes on your initial assessment of your business and its trends, mistakes as to the optimal strategy and the key priorities for attention during the first six months, and mistakes on decisions that cannot be changed.
If one is worried about making mistakes, then being a GM may not be the right spot for you. But the key is to focus on the opportunities to build the business, not on avoiding mistakes. A key difference between a staff job and a GM job is that as a staff person one recommends the best course of action, but ultimately your GM makes the decision to move forward. If you're uncomfortable making decisions which will often not be optimal, than you'll have a tough transition indeed!
Leveraging your mistakes
Mistakes—and learning from them—are what business is all about. At the risk of sounding even more flippant, it's been my experience that the more mistakes you make, the faster you learn, grow, and consequently progress in your market or organization. The important thing is to LEARN from your mistakes and IMPROVE your outcomes the second time around. While some would diminish the value of culture in organizations, it is very important to understand the environment of the organization you finally find yourself running. With knowledge of the processes already in place or forming in a start-up, you can function optimally within the organization without being classified as either timid or a "loose cannon." This has been the most critical success factor I have found in the various situations I have been involved in.