How to Become a General Manager (GM) - Steps & Requirements
When the average American hears the term “general manager,” they might think of it in the context of professional sports. In football, for example, a team’s GM is responsible for financial transactions, business strategy, staff assignments, and player contracts—and in this role, they often invoke the ire of armchair pundits across the nation.
There’s less public scrutiny over the hiring and firing of various employees in the business world, but the responsibilities of a general manager are primarily the same. Here, a GM is responsible for the operation of a particular department within a company. And it’s their job to shape that team into an efficient and synergized unit that can meet operational targets. Of course, the goal isn’t winning the Super Bowl, but sometimes the stakes are just as high: the decision a GM makes can have consequences to the tune of millions of dollars.
General managers come in many shapes and sizes, and their duties are primarily based upon the particular company and department they serve. For example, a GM at a tech company may have a background in IT and serve as a product manager, while a GM at a manufacturing company may specialize in supply chain logistics. In most cases, GMs oversee lower-level managers and report up to top executives. This requires both a fundamental understanding of a specific department’s operations and a keen ability to motivate and manage large teams.
But the rewards are commensurate with the requirements: according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary of a general manager is over $125,000 per year (BLS May 2020). The top employing industries for general and operations managers range from financial to food and beverage companies, with nearly 2,500,000 people employed in this role (BLS May 2020).
The GM of a business department isn’t all that different from the GM of a sports team. This is a role that asks for a competitive spirit, an appetite for risk, and attention to detail. If you’re ready to step out onto the field of general management, read on to find our step-by-step guide.
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Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a GM
Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
After graduating from high school, aspiring general managers need to earn a bachelor’s degree. While one can choose to major in any business-related sphere (e.g., finance, marketing, economics, etc.), the most linear path is to specialize in business administration or management. Admissions requirements vary from school to school but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater); letters of recommendation; SAT and/or ACT scores; and a personal statement.
Arizona State University offers a bachelor of science (BS) in management that can be completed entirely online. The core curriculum covers subjects such as the fundamentals of the global economy; e-business; human resources; and collaborative teams. In addition, featured courses include organizational behavior; cross-cultural management; leading organizations; and organization and management leadership. This 120-credit program costs $688 per credit for resident and non-resident students.
The on-campus bachelor of science in business administration (BSBA) program at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business puts its students into management training at the start of their freshman year. Key classes include the dynamics of leading organizations; modeling business decisions and market outcomes; management communications; and operations management.
Students may choose from 11 different functional concentrations: accounting; entrepreneurship; finance; general management; international management; law; management information systems; marketing; operations and technology management; organizational behavior; or strategy and innovation. Tuition at this four-year program is approximately $58,560 per year.
Step Two: Gain Early Work Experience (Optional, Timeline Varies)
After earning their bachelor’s degree, many aspiring general managers seek out early work experience. While some prefer to skip straight to their MBA (see step three below), entry-level jobs can prove to be an invaluable experience, providing a chance to learn on the job while also shaping the direction of one’s career towards a particular subset of business like HR, IT, or finance.
An aspiring general manager will almost always need to spend time at lower-level positions before earning the title of GM. However, starting early can boost one’s resume for further employment and one’s application to graduate programs. As a bonus, some employers will even subsidize a portion of their employee’s graduate tuition, making early work experience an attractive investment.
Step Three: Earn an MBA (One to Three Years)
After earning a bachelor’s degree, an aspiring general manager can benefit immensely from earning a master’s of business administration. The MBA is of value for almost any business-facing profession, but it’s practically tailor-made for future general managers. Students in MBA programs will sharpen their business acumen, develop an extensive professional network, and learn the management skills that turn a role-player into a leader.
Admissions requirements for MBA programs will vary from school to school but generally include some combination of the following: a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or greater); letters of recommendation; GRE and/or GMAT scores; a personal statement; and work experience.
The online MBA at Northeastern University D’Amore-McKim School of Business offers all the rigor of an on-campus program, but with the added flexibility of online delivery. The core curriculum includes management classes covering topics such as operations and supply chain management; managing people and organizations; managing the global enterprise; managing information resources; and managing ethics in the workplace and marketplace.
Students may choose either a generalist track or add one of eight concentrations: finance; healthcare management; high technology management; innovation entrepreneurship; international management; marketing; supply chain management; or sustainability. The 50-credit program costs approximately $1,600 per credit and can be completed in two years or more.
The flexible MBA program at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School can be completed either online, on-campus, or in a hybrid format. The business foundation portion of the curriculum includes classes such as business communications; negotiation; business analytics; business leadership and human values; economics for decision making; and operations management.
Online students may choose to further specialize their education by choosing from one of four concentrations: financial businesses; healthcare management; leading organizations; or marketing. On-campus students have the same concentration options plus three more: entrepreneurship; interdisciplinary business; or real estate and infrastructure. The program consists of 54 credits, costs $1,370 per credit, and takes approximately 32 months to complete.
Southern New Hampshire University offers a 30-credit online MBA with 17 specialization areas, including sport management. Courses in this program include sport and society, internationalization of sport business and management of sport organizations. Applicants can transfer up to six credits and choose from several start dates. GRE and GMAT scores are not required for admission.
SNHU’s online MBA program revised its curriculum in 2021 and is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP). In addition, students have access to support services through academic advising, exclusive online learning communities. This program can be completed in approximately one year and costs $627 per credit.
The Kania School of Management at the University of Scranton offers an on-campus and an online MBA program with eight unique specialization areas, three of which are in management. Courses in the operations management specialization focus on supply chain management; production planning and control; and project and quality management. The Association accredits this program to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).
The University of Scranton is one of 27 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States and offers small MBA classes, capped at 20 students. Students in this program interact with their classmates and MBA faculty members to create a strong network of cohorts to help them transition from academic to professional life. Tuition for this program is $965 per credit.
The University of Saint Mary offers an online MBA with six concentration areas, including human resource management. This concentration requires 33 credit hours, including eight core courses and three courses in conflict management and negotiation; organizational change and development; and training and development. This program is accredited by the International Accreditation Council for Business Education (IACBE) and can be completed full- or part-time.
Graduates with this MBA concentration are well-positioned for human resource management roles and are trained to take calculated risks. By studying business and ethics, conflict management, and negotiations, MBA graduates with human resources training are prepared to lead teams and help companies navigate challenging situations. Tuition for this program costs $20,065
Step Four: Consider Professional Certification (Optional, Timeline Varies)
While it’s not a requirement, many general managers seek out professional certification. In doing so, a general manager can stand out from an increasingly educated pack by demonstrating a commitment to and understanding of the industry’s best practices. And requirements to recertify often mean that a credentialed general manager is asked to complete continuing education units, making them more likely to be abreast of industry trends.
The Institute of Certified Professional Managers (ICPM) offers a robust credential in its Certified Manager (CM) certification. Eligibility is based on a weighted point system that balances education and work experience. While there is some flexibility within that system, a bachelor’s degree combined with four years of management experience is generally sufficient. Once deemed eligible, applicants must pass three separate multiple-choice tests: one on management essentials, planning and organizing, and leading and controlling.
A complete blueprint of each test’s topic areas can be found on the ICPM website. Each test consists of 100 questions, which applicants are given two hours to complete. Application and exam fees total $555. Those who hold the CM designation will need to recertify every three years by completing 45 professional development units (PDUs) with a management or leadership focus.
Helpful Resources for Aspiring GMs
Management is about teamwork. General managers rely on the exchange of ideas to make them better leaders both in and out of the office. To get a glimpse into the evolving world of general management, check out some of the resources below.
- Academy of Management (AOM)
- American Management Association (AMA)
- Harvard Business Review’s Six Basics for General Managers
- Institute of Certified Public Managers (ICPM)
- Journal of General Management
- ICPM’s MGMT Blog