The path to GM — some thoughts on becoming a general manager

The recruiting season is getting underway and shortly we’ll be “at a college near you” looking to connect.  I will be at Harvard Business School the first week of October, where I’ll visit some classes and also participate in a career fair.  I hope to see some readers there!

I met this week with one the managers at Microsoft that I officially mentor.  We have a program (literally an ASP.NET program) where you can sign up to mentor or be mentored through a matching process.  The discussion we had was about career progression and how does one become CEO.  I thought that was a rather ambitious goal—after all asking your mentor for the path to become their manager is interesting ;-).  We talked the discussion down from CEO to achieving the career goal of general management (GM).  I’ll define general management as managing multiple functions with significant responsibility for a whole customer visible project—this can be a product unit of 50 people (20 devs, 20 test, 10 program managers) or a whole business group of 300 that includes marketing and other disciplines.  At Microsoft, as with many companies, reaching this level of management is a significant accomplishment and with it comes significant responsibility.  If you aspire to, then how do you get there?

(Now is a good time to say that this is definitely an article that could be used against me since I’m sure there are things in here that I do not practice as well as I should—if you happen to know that, then suffice it to say I’m still learning too and these are lessons I’ve learned!  And also I will use a bunch of examples in here, but any of them can have their tables turned and reflect any other job discipline.)

The first words out of my mouth in this case are always patience.  It is a cliché, and frankly coming from an executive always seems self-serving.  But the truth is I think that pace is the most important element of a career.  Once you become a functional manager your career is different and your contribution is different, and not necessarily better.  And once you become a general manager, your career again changes and your contribution is way different, and as you’ll experience the job becomes a bit more lonely and often less “fun”.  I remember going to my 5 year reunion for college and we’re sitting out on the arts quad eating PMPs (don’t ask!) when I listened to each of my fellow Comp Sci friends bemoan the amount of management they were doing and how they were no longer really doing any “work”.  That certainly made me pause and I felt great that I was still writing code and not actually managing anyone!  My first lesson in patience. 

The second reason to be patient about your career is that you are probably never nearly as ready as you think you are for the next big job.  The challenge is that the company has lots to worry about in addition to your career.  The company has shareholders, other employees, and customers so balancing all of those needs in addition to your career is tricky.  Here is where trusting your manager (and management chain) is super important.  In a strong organization, the opportunities for you will come, even if they don’t come as fast as you’d like.  We’ve all had people we were impressed by because of their meteoric rise, only to see them perhaps “peak early” or worse.  At the same time, I’ve seen organizations rewarded for making the right move at the right time and seeing someone just ready enough to step into a bigger/broader role and make a huge difference with a running start.  Mike Maples, certainly one of the most respected Microsoft managers ever, used to remind us all that things work out in the long run.  So another reason to be patient.

So assuming you have the patience, then what are the right steps to general management?  If you were to ask general managers at Microsoft how they ended up in their job you’d probably get a unique answer for each person.  Most at Microsoft that rose up through the ranks probably didn’t expect (or seek) GM roles. Certainly for me, I was generally much more in the moment and excited by the technology, products and customers.  I always felt that my managers noticed that and that was a big part of why I was offered management responsibility.  The most important thing about moving into general management is that you have to be very good at the function (dev, test, pm, marketing) that you currently work in—no one is going to want you to manage another function, especially one you have never done, if you are not among the best at managing your current discipline.

Generally, you’re going to need to gain some experience in another function before you can really hit the ground running as a general manager.  I know that is something I tend to look for in candidates.  This is not as dramatic as it often sounds.  If you’re a developer, it does not mean you should go become a sales person (most good developers would fail spectacularly at sales, and vice versa).  Rather the focus should be on an “adjacent” discipline.  You can think of the disciplines as a continuum:

Support <-> Sales <-> Marketing <-> Planning <-> Program Management <-> Development <-> Testing

At any point you can look “left or right” and see the potential for you to broaden your expertise and gain the experience that could serve you well as a multi-disciplinary manager.  You probably don’t need to go far for this experience, and in fact staying close by in a familiar organization or product might serve you well and help you keep your feet on the ground.  The majority, but by no means all, general managers at Microsoft have experience in the dev/pm space or in the sales/marketing space.  I want to be careful about generalizing, because with a relatively small set of folks and a lot of unique stories it is important to understand that many paths can lead to GM.  I should also say, that he above spectrum is not complete and not meant to be exhaustive, but just illustrative.

Why is this experience important?  The biggest reason is because the day you walk into a room and look around and see 3 or 4 (or more) different disciplines looking at you for leadership and guidance, your credibility hinges on being able to humbly and respectfully talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk of several disciplines that you never did.  “BS” detectors will immediately go up—just because you were a whiz at marketing or sales, do not think test or pm will immediately just follow you (insert any other disciplines in there).  In fact, one of the biggest early points of failure for a new GM is the inability to see eye to eye or bond with the “other” disciplines.  If you were a developer who was always beating up on testing, or a program manager who always said marketing was clueless then imagine how those disciplines will feel if they see you stand up in front of the room and say “Hi, I’m your new manager”.  That won’t be a pretty sight.  After all, these folks will now be looking to you to expand their career opportunities and you can’t do that if you have not internalized respect for all those that contribute.  So if you’re looking to move to general management, showing how you can walk in the other’s shoes is super important.  When was the last time you asked testing their views?  When was the last time you helped marketing with some technical content and let them get all the glory? When was the last time you didn’t take the “expected” role because you knew the other person was right?

Another point of failure on the path to general management is closely related and that is being too focused on your discipline and not being able to “rise” above your discipline during times when the organization needs it.  You can think of this as being too much of a functional silo, or just not “mature” enough to see the big picture.  It means for example that as a tester if you know the schedule is tight and that we need time to get the quality to the right levels, but you also know there is a hard constraint due to a “train that is leaving the station then the senior folks are the ones that take a step back and find a solution to the situation and do not dig their heels in just play the expected role (i.e. testers saying we need time, developers saying it can’t be done, program managers saying we need to add features, marketing saying we need it sooner, etc.)  The ability to solve problems in a situation that arise from the other perspectives or disciplines is a key trait of a GM who rose up through functional leadership.  At Microsoft, good examples of this are program managers who cut features because they know, as much as they want them, that the feature will lower the overall quality, or testers who know how to find a path to insuring the quality of a late braking addition that they know we need but adds measurable risk to the project.

The next area of experience is often the first one thrown at you by managers when you ask about the path to GM, which is to go and get experience on a broad set of product lines.  This is easy to say, and actually relatively easy to do.  The value though really depends on the situation and the depth of the experience you gain.  One way to look at this is if you’re looking at a resume of an external candidate and you see 5 jobs in 10 years, that is usually a little bit of a warning sign.  Just because you know all the groups, an internal candidate with that same resume should probably set off the same warning signs.  This is only a warning and something to look into, not a disqualification of course.  But a key tenet for me is that to become excellent and among the best at a functional role is to work on the “beginning, middle, and end” of a project at least twice.  Why is this?  Well all the learning comes from deciding what to do, figuring out how to do it, and then doing it.  But the real learning comes from watching customers live with all those decisions you made, and then going back to the whiteboard and figuring out how to clean up the mess you made J.   In software that could be 5 years on one team, which might seem like an eternity, especially as a person anxious to be a GM, but I believe it makes you a much stronger leader and manger down the road.

At the same time, experience in other product lines is super valuable.  It is very similar in benefit to gaining experience in other disciplines.  All software products need to work together, certainly that is what our customers say, but if you haven’t been on the other side of that dependency (or interface) then you are only seeing one side of the solution and probably spending way too much time thinking the other folks are coconuts.  Again this is one where there is a lot of judgment about how different the experience needs to be, and there are a lot of factors that a company can consider that come into play.  Some companies expect you to move very far because the companies are very diverse and the expertise you are gaining is around management and process.  Other companies expect you to continue gain technical depth and thus moves that are “far” actually slow down your contribution.  And to point out how much judgment there is in this, usually at junior levels it helps to gain the depth experience in relatively adjacent technologies, and then at senior levels because your contribution is much more about process and management you can usually move further away.  I strongly recommend having a plan for yourself that balances being excellent at your function over a good period of time, while also gaining that same level of depth experience in another business or product line that builds on those skills you gained.

This leads to the last tip I could offer on the path to general management, which is to develop a mentor or role model within your organization.  This needs to be someone you can talk to who can objectively validate and/or criticize your thoughts on career path.  A lot of folks will go to the human resources group for this type of advice, and while that can be a good data point, I would suggest that you want to find someone you admire or respect who has come from a similar path you are currently on.  So if you are a developer and want to be a general manager, find someone at the company who is a developer who became a general manager.  Ask if they will talk to you once or twice a year (usually during performance review or goal setting time) and certainly ask if you can talk to them when you are considering a change in jobs or responsibilities.  I know when people ask me about their careers I always ask who they see around the company as a role model, and it surprises me that most of the time folks do not have a clear view.  As a hint, it isn’t really the best answer to say you are modeling yourself after Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer – those are a couple of unique individuals and so I’d suggest being a bit more pragmatic in who you’re most likely to want to be like.  It is worth noting that mentors are people too and they often don’t have magic answers to questions, but if you bring good questions (such as “how would you handle this situation that I am facing this week?”) then there is a good chance you can have a very beneficial mentoring experience.

Finally, I’d close by saying that if you were reading this thinking “gosh, I don’t really know if I want to be a general manager or not” then that is ok too.  Far too many people think being a big time manager is where it’s at.  Being a general manager has its moments, but if you rose up through the ranks as a developer and program manager, believe me it is not magical the first time your test manager asks you “do you think we’re investing enough in automated testing for this scenario?”  (note, this happened to me!) Managing work that you have never done is very stressful and also a bit lonely.  If you have the right mindset and stay focused on excellence, my experience is that the company will recognize this and the right person will connect with the right organization and the right time—and in the end, as Mike Maples said about management, the cream will rise to the top and the right things happen for everyone.

So if I had to summarize a way to think about your career plan to become a general manager:

  1. Be patient.  If you take your time and work with your management chain, your chances of success definitely go up.
  2. Be excellent.  The first key is to be among the very best performers at your core discipline.
  3. Gain adjacency experience.  A good, but not necessarily critical, next step is to gain experience in an adjacent discipline.
  4. Respect and understand all the disciplines.  It is not possible for any one person to work in all the disciplines you might manage someday, but you should spend a good deal of effort learning and understanding the other disciplines before you have to manage them.
  5. Work on multiple product lines.  Figure out for you and your organization what the right type of experience change you should have and seek that out when you feel like you’ve reached a good level of functional excellence and performance at your current role.
  6. Find a mentor.  See if there is someone in the company who followed a path similar to the one you would like to follow and meet with them to discuss your career.


BTW, I’ve received some mail about the recent article in Business Week on Microsoft.  Right now I will choose not to comment on it until I see if the writers and editors choose to correct or comment on some of the plethora of factual errors.

Comments (28)
  1. imprinted says:

    WoW this is a very very informative post! I was in a situation where an old advertising company who I worked for as a sales manager 12 years ago, was bought to a multi-million dollar ad agency and requested I stay on board to become a GM for my terriorty.

    The position came with alot of "rules" and demands I also was the only 1 they asked to stay on board so my co-workers got the "boot"

    I did not accept the GM postion but your post hit right on the mark.

  2. Tifoso says:

    Fantastic post Steven.

    I was an SDET intern this summer, and have an offer to join as an FTE.

    One thing that has been of concern to me, and which has only increased after reading this post is the role of Test in the company.

    As you mention, and this is something that I have noticed, most GMs are from the Dev or PM disciplines. Why is this?

    Are the technical skills of Test Managers considered insufficient to manage other disciplines?

  3. DeepICE says:

    Exactly – You esspecially have to "Talk the Talk" 🙂

    "Super Excited", "Super Important" etc…

    The higher you get the more "Super’s" you got to add

  4. Meeza says:

    "Are the technical skills of Test Managers considered insufficient to manage other disciplines?"

    Brian Valentine used to be a Test Manager.

    When’s Vista shipping?

  5. Bob says:

    You’re going to go to HBS and recruit some more MBAs?

    That’s super interesting, maybe it’ll give you a much richer experience.

  6. steven_sinofsky says:

    I admit I’m enjoying the comments from folks who just hurl snide comments at the posts. I suppose it means I should be doing a better job at writing.

    I will not post a snide comment in reply 🙂

  7. Mujibur says:

    "Right now I will choose not to comment on it until I see if the writers and editors choose to correct or comment on some of the plethora of factual errors."

    You mean like when Ballmer flat out lied about Vista never having been delayed?

  8. steven_sinofsky says:

    As I mentioned, there were a number of significant errors in the story by jay greene. I won’t go into specifics until I see what the writer has a chance to work on them.

    Remove Comment 471382Monday, September 19, 2005 2:17 PM by Mujibur

    "Right now I will choose not to comment on it until I see if the writers and editors choose to correct or comment on some of the plethora of factual errors."

    You mean like when Ballmer flat out lied about Vista never having been delayed?

  9. Tifoso says:

    "I admit I’m enjoying the comments from folks who just hurl snide comments at the posts. I suppose it means I should be doing a better job at writing.

    I will not post a snide comment in reply :-)"

    Humm, not sure if this was directed at me, but my question was a genuine one.


  10. steven_sinofsky says:

    Of course not Tifoso!

    You are right that test is not statistically represented at microsoft or most companies in business group general management.

    The way I would look at this is that program management and product management are probably over-represented. The general consensus is that those that start in these disciplines and gain adjacent experience have a pre-disposition to be successful as general management. There is a particular emphasis on leadership skills required to work in those groups plays a big part in that these are both jobs where your direct responsibility is overshadowed by the need to get things done by influence.

  11. Abra says:

    "Right now I will choose not to comment on it until I see if the writers and editors choose to correct or comment on some of the plethora of factual errors."

    If you claim there are errors, can you at least point out the factual errors and what the corrections should be? Saying there are a "plethora" of errors but refusing to say what they are seems like you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too.

    Or maybe that is part of what it takes to be GM?

  12. steven_sinofsky says:

    Of course we are doing that. Rather than use a blog we are doing so through the normal process and letting the editors have a chance to stand by their publication. I wanted to let the folks who have contacted me anonymously know that I’m aware of the issue.

    And yes, knowing when to appropriately fire off with comments and when to lay low could be considered by some skills of a general manager 🙂

  13. Spurned says:

    Excellent post!

    I wish I had known that you were participating in the MS Mentor program! One of my dreams and (oft articulated) goals during my near-decade at MS was to eventually become a GM for a product line.

    Eventually however, the number of gold star bonuses and A+ awards I received as a manager was ignored and downplayed by my own very (apparently) underqualified, apathetic manager, who ended up informing me that the best way for me to continue my "steady rise" was to go work for another company. And thus I did.

    Not too long ago, actually.

    I hope you and the gang are doing well, by the way. For what it’s worth, I have strived to re-create some of the more positive elements and tenets of Office here in my new org. Some of them were things that I learned from the in-person discussions you and I had over the years. 😉

  14. steven_sinofsky says:

    I wish I would have known. It sounds like things are working out for you which is what matters.

    Feel free to email me 🙂

  15. Dharmesh says:

    Very very interesting article. Maybe there is still hope for me here.I have had incredible 8 years here and can honestly say that I have really honed my core competency – technical Presales over the last 8 years. I have moved countries and grown into different roles within the field TS community .Ironically my core competency it seems is my Achilles heel- I tried a few years back to move tangentially into a marketing or sales function to move up. The response I got from my management was you are really good at what you do and we would hate to loose you.

    Result I was moved up a level in my present role but people completely missed the point of why I was exploring other options.It did not help that growth alternatives are so limited…

    I was getting BORED out of my mind since my currrent role is keeping me very very busy but adding no value to me as a person. End result I have started pursuing my MBA . Balancing work and School is challenging and fun. it extends me and hopefully at the end of this I would be able to explore other options ….I will get a mentor as well..

  16. steven_sinofsky says:

    Dharmesh you raise a great point about the manager’s responsibility in your career moves. At Microsoft, when things go well your manager is your coach or your advisor, but ultimately you are responsible for your choices. Managers are people too and have stresses and responsibilities, so sometimes the manager might not act 100% in your interest in the long term. You can think of that as the coach who plays a player too much and risks wearing them out.

    That means you have to seek other views, like a mentor, or just take a step back and ask yourself "yes I know I’m valuable here, but…" For example, most people over-estimate their ability to translate success in one area to success in another (there is a great HBR article on managing "stars" that shows how stars very rairly meet expectations when they move to radically new jobs). So it could be your manager is looking out for you. It could also be that your manager is concerned about the near-term issues of performance of the whole team. You have to ask yourself about the timing of your move and if that is good for the team, the org, and you, or just you. Afterall, being a team player is pretty important to your long term leadership capabilities. Previously I spoke about the importance of getting full "cycle" experience as well, so that is important to consider. In R&D it is product cycles. In S&M it is fiscal years or campaigns.

    If you are bored, then you need to speak up. No one does a good job when they are bored. If you get make-work in response to that then it is time to get crisper in your feedback to your manager or constructively talk to your manager’s manager.


  17. Bala says:

    Steven – you mention looking for a mentor. I’m looking for one. Would a Distinguished engineer be a pragmatic choice – or would that be a "Pie in the sky" type as well i.e. I need to set my sights lower?

  18. steven_sinofsky says:

    Microsoft people should feel free to send mail.

    I think most DEs are more available to be technical mentors and help you with technical challenges you face. My experience is that most would not feel they managed their careers to become a DE, but were fortunate to achieve the designation and recognition!

  19. Anonymous said:

    Managers love to give more reasons why lots of managers are a good thing. Why lots…

  20. Before I get started I should point out that I am not an MBA and I don’t play one on TV. &amp;nbsp;The…

  21. The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.Butcher, in Shakespeare’s King Henry VI

    The first…

  22. Chris James says:

    Hey Steven how's it all working out for you now? i'm really interested in this field of work, did it pay off?

  23. Stephen Butler says:

    Great article!! I can really relate to the point on talking the talk and walking the walk on disciplines unknown!! This is my fear about moving into General Management territory. I have had my chances to learn about other disciplines, such as quality and environment over the years and much to my dismay now, I never took up the offer or showed much interest.  I hope I can rectify/reverse my situation and take the next step soon….

Comments are closed.

Skip to main content