Organizational Structure: When a New Manager Takes Charge

Topics: Management, Marketing, Vice President of the United States Pages: 63 (8540 words) Published: December 3, 2013
THE TESTS OF A LEADER

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BEST OF HBR

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1985

Editor’s Note: A great deal has been written about first managerial jobs and their attendant woes; similarly, there are whole shelves of books devoted to the art and science of becoming a CEO. Fewer publications address what happens when general managers take over a division or function in large organizations. Yet these are the transitions through which a manager becomes – or fails to become – a leader.

More than 20 years ago, Harvard Business School professor John J. Gabarro conducted a research project to examine what happens when general managers take on big new jobs. The project consisted of a three-year longitudinal study followed by a set of ten historical case studies of management successions. Specifically, Gabarro was trying to sort out why some managers failed but others succeeded. In this 1985 article, he reported on his findings: Managers took much longer than predicted to get up to speed; successful transitions followed predictable stages (including two sit-back-and-watch periods of immersion and refinement); industry insiders took charge much faster than outsiders; and a good working relationship with a boss dramatically increased the likelihood of success. Gabarro’s most important finding overall was that taking charge takes a long, long time. Given the now common practice of shortened generalmanagement assignments, are organizations paying a huge, hidden cost?

When a New Manager Takes Charge
Managers who take the helm of new businesses or large divisions must go through predictable stages before they’ve truly mastered the job.

by John J. Gabarro

T

HE SUBSIDIARY WAS IN SERIOUS TROUBLE, so top management hired a young vice president of marketing with an enviable track record in another industry and gave him
carte blanche. He reorganized the marketing function
using a brand management concept, restructured the sales division, and devised new marketing strategies. Margins continued to erode, however, and after nine months he lost his job.
In another company, top management also hired a manager
from a different industry to turn around a subsidiary’s heavy losses and gave him considerable latitude. He too formulated an entirely new marketing strategy along brand lines. Within a
year’s time, margins improved, and within three years the subsidiary was very profitable and sales had doubled. On the surface, these two situations are strikingly similar. Both executives were in their middle thirties, and neither had experience in his new industry. The two men implemented major changes that were remarkably alike. Furthermore, both worked

104 Harvard Business Review

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January 2007

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hbr.org

THE TESTS OF A LEADER

|

BEST OF HBR

|

When a New Manager Takes Charge

The taking-charge process occurs
in several predictable stages, each of
which has its own tasks, problems, and
dilemmas. My study’s findings also put
to rest the myth of the all-purpose general manager who can be dropped into any situation and triumph. To the contrary, my observations indicate that managers’ experiences have a profound
and inescapable influence on how they
take charge, what areas they focus on,
and how successful they are likely to be
in mastering the new situation.

for difficult bosses. Yet one succeeded
and the other failed. What factors account for the different outcomes? To answer this question, we need to
look deeper and explore the contexts
the two managers faced, their backgrounds, and the taking-charge process itself.
Although only dramatic examples
make headlines, a recent study shows
that by the time general managers
reach their late forties, they have already taken charge of three to nine management posts.1 Despite the freJohn J. Gabarro is the UPS Foundation Professor of Human Resource Management in Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business

School in Boston.
106 Harvard Business Review

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quency, however, and...
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