The opportunities and threats of taking charge.

This is the fourth coaching letter in a series offered as part of my regular column. It responds to real questions managers in small or medium enterprises have asked me. Both company and individual information has been disguised and sometimes blended with others to be relevant to more people.

In previous columns I described taking a first management role and then moving into more strategic responsibility for a function. Now we look at taking full profit and loss (P&L) responsibility for a business unit.

In a small company this would usually go with being CEO, but in this case the person I am writing to has been given full P&L responsibility to create a new unit within the company. The company has about 100 people. The current focus on wholesale customers will continue, and the new business unit will package smaller amounts and sell directly to consumers. I wrote:

Congratulations! Now you get the chance to test yourself against the “bottom line” criterion of business: can you create a sustainable return on investment?

Increased autonomy brings great opportunities and some threats. Although your colleagues in the top team are really supportive (a rare gift!), in a sense you are on your own. In creating a whole new market for the company, you will have to gather data, compare alternative strategies and choose one, implement fiercely, stick with the task even when no one is noticing, and justify your existence by increasing cost efficient revenue. Then you should add your legal, social, ethical and environmental responsibilities – as a leader you join all other leaders in influencing society, whether or not you are aware of it.

The position brings huge opportunities for growth. You will develop even greater self-reliance. You will need to grow a new network with the most senior members in the industry and beyond, including government.

You will develop heightened judgement. The strategic “helicopter” view is wider, longer and deeper and requires noticing things you may not have looked at before. Strategic matters include the competitive landscape; social, cultural, political and economic trends with implications for at least five years into the future; legal requirements in each jurisdiction you work in; and environmental considerations.

You cannot rely on anyone else to make things happen, so initiative is important. You will need to devote time to thinking; it’s part of the job.

Leadership requires being comfortable with paradoxes and trade-offs. You have to balance short term and long term results. You will need to allocate resources and resolve the competing demands of your team. You will have to be both implacably hard on performance and affirming of people, as your success depends on their commitment and competence. And you will want to build capacity in the team so the unit thrives after you leave.

Success also requires leading yourself. You will make mistakes, but as leader you cannot afford to give up or fall apart. What are the possible personal challenges?

It can be lonely. Find yourself a good mentor or a few trusted peers to bounce ideas off and to generate energy. People will relate to you differently – as the boss rather than yourself. Being new to the role, you have to balance portraying confidence while learning as fast as you can from everyone around you.

There will be times when you feel anxious – “Will I cope? Is this taking me where I want to be in my career? Am I aligned with what is expected of me?” Your success will be partly dependent on factors beyond your control, like market conditions. But this is the opportunity your career has prepared you for. So enjoy it!

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 25 July 2022 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2022-07-25-jonathan-cook-bonuses-and-burdens-of-being-a-boss/).

If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit

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