Every new general manager today—all the way up to the CEO—is expected by his or her stakeholders to achieve new breakthroughs in performance—and fast. Those who don't make visible progress toward that goal within the first year or two will likely find themselves looking for another job.
It is precisely because of this growing breakthrough imperative that managers today, whether in corporations or nonprofits, need to get off to a fast start. They don't have time for mistakes, or for going back and redoing what they should have done right in the first place.
Despite the intensity of these pressures, despite the high expectations and short time frames, a number of CEOs and general managers turn in truly exceptional results. How do they meet and exceed the breakthrough imperative? To answer that question, we interviewed more than 40 CEOs from both industry and the nonprofit sector, conducted an intensive study of what successful managers do right—and the rest do wrong—and drew on our own combined 50-plus years of experience at Bain & Company.
In a nutshell, what we found is that successful general managers seem to rely on two keys to success. One is that they have a deep understanding of the fundamental laws of business. Because of that, they see things others don't, do things others won't even consider, and avoid the mistakes that can trap even the best leaders. The other key is that they identify and follow a clear path to performance improvement, based on an assessment of their organization's full potential. They know how to use the fundamentals to diagnose their starting point accurately, craft a realistic and compelling set of objectives, and map out a trajectory from one to the other.