Insights for business leaders in challenging times

Leading South Africa is like sprinting in a fog barefoot and running over thorns, according to Nick Binedell, Strategy Professor and Founding Director of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS). He may be talking about the country's top political leadership – more specifically, the president who has had to govern during extraordinary, volatile and unpredictable times – but it's an analogy that also applies to business leaders.

The world, and especially South Africa, is under serious economic, societal and geo-political pressure, which means that senior managers need to develop their 'barefoot running' skills in the form of resilience and stamina to lead their business through uncertainty. "We need leaders who set the standard, who support their teams, who are creative and agile decision-makers," says Binedell. In South Africa, this translates into business leaders who can manage their businesses during Stage 6 load shedding, social unrest, extreme weather events, and more. "We've all had to suddenly learn how to manage during the pandemic," he says, "We are going to really have to think about frugality and change at the same time. We're going to have to be shrewder and move much, much faster to run sustainable businesses in future."

That's why efficient strategic leadership - the link between strategy and execution – is paramount. "Strategy has become a buzzword; it basically means '
what will you do next?'", says Binedell. "It's no good knowing where you're trying to get to unless you know how you're going to make that happen. On the other hand, it's also no good knowing what you want to make happen without setting a sense of direction. And that's where strategy and leadership come together."

Where the buck stops

A large body of management research focuses on C-suite leadership, but Harvard Business School professor John Gabarro conducted his studies on the level below the top executive, researching "what happens when general managers take over a division or function in large organisations". In Harvard Business Review, he explains why he selected this management level: because "these are the transitions through which a manager becomes - or fails to become - a leader."

His findings, which were first published in the 1980s but are still much-quoted, indicate that the process of taking charge occurs in five stages: taking hold; immersion; reshaping; consolidation; and refinement. The time the general managers (GMs) spent in each of these stages varied between four and 11 months. Within these phases, there are alternate periods of intense learning (immersion and refinement) and action (taking hold, reshaping, and consolidation). According to Gabarro, understanding a situation and effecting change do not occur overnight and are influenced by a manager's leadership style and effective working relationships.

So, what exactly is the difference between 'managing' and 'leading'? "A manager deals mainly with the current realities and getting things done while a leader is dealing more with the direction, the strategy and taking overall responsibility for integrating the functions and the operations into the overall business," says Binedell. "As a leader, you're constantly looking at the entire picture, whereas a manager may have a specific area, such as the finance director, who will worry mainly about the finances, the marketing director who is in charge of the customers and the operations director who is producing the services."

An excellent GM is both a leader and an integrator. In other words, GMs are involved in the everyday running of an organisaton, pulling together cross sections of the business and taking responsibility for the outcomes of those whom they manage – similar to the roles in an aircraft where the flight engineer, the co-pilot and the flight attendants all have their own area of responsibility, but ultimately it's the pilot who will be held accountable for the smooth running or any catastrophes related to the flight. Binedell says, "It's where the buck stops."

In terms of rank, the GM occupies the position just below the CEO in the executive suite. According to Investopedia, "A GM runs a line of business, whereas the CEO is the GM of all lines of business in a company." In some companies, the GM may have a different title, which can be anything from vice president, product manager and brand manager to managing partner or managing director.

Creating cross-functional leaders

The rapidly evolving global business challenges and complexities require leaders who are cross-functional and can effect change across their company. Research firm Gartner puts it like this, "At a higher level, general managers are the senior leaders responsible for the organisation's future revenue from its existing and new products and/or services. In this regard, general managers bring together external customer and market needs, internal operational and financial realities, and future-learning technological capabilities into a desirable, viable, and feasible set of solutions."

GIBS' General Management Programme (GMP) prepares South African GMs for these cross-functional challenges, getting them ready to transition into (or build on their existing) strategic leadership role. Participants include function heads and senior managers from multiple industries in both the private and the public sectors, as well as GMs who have already made the transition and strive to improve their performance.

"These are experienced executives who are responsible for a unit or a business, wanting to hone their strategic leadership skills," says Binedell. He explains that by the end of the programme, they will have internalised the difference between being a line manager and being a general manager. They will have learned how to move beyond their specific function to become a cross-functional general manager who not only plans strategically for the future but also knows how to execute those plans.

The six-month GMP is a personalised journey of discovery and growth in four blocks, that teaches participants through intensive coaching, teamwork and high-calibre lecturers. The topics range from 'Leading Self' and 'Leading a Business Unit' to the international travel block 'Leading in a Global Economy'. In 2023, the participants will explore Spain's modern, knowledge-based economy. "The international immersion is an important part of the programme, because two things happen: One is that you go and study another country, and compare its companies, its economy, its difficulties and successes with your own situation," says Binedell. "But the other side of it is that most of our best discussions about South Africa are held when we're not actually here. Travelling can be stimulating, and it takes some of the pressure away so we can talk more openly."

Essentially, the GMP is about understanding yourself and your place within the context of the organisation and the people you are leading. It's a valuable step towards learning how to sprint barefoot, dodging thorns, while waiting for the fog to lift that currently obscures South Africa's future.

Useful resources:
Gordon Institute of Business Science
Making an impact to significantly improve the competitive performance of individuals and organisation through business education to build our national competitiveness. GIBS is a leading business school in the heart of Sandton’s business hub, offering a wide range of executive and academic programmes.
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