3 Principles for Developing Profit and Loss Leaders

Ten years ago, while working at Aetna, Henry Huang and I designed and launched the successful General Manager / P&L Program.  Our primary goal was to increase participants’ ability to manage businesses at various life stages and levels of complexity.  A secondary objective was to accelerate leaders’ readiness and visibility to serve in broader and more senior roles.  The program design used  simple, but powerful, principles that you can use in your organization.

  1. Use Cohort-Based Learning Groups

Program feedback was clear and uniform over the years.  The greatest value of the program was the ability to interact, network and learn from peers.  Although the formal and academic components of the program were appreciated; including a) courses taught from leading professors; b) access to business advisors; and c) interaction with senior leaders; leaders prized the time they spent with each other.

Design tips:

  • Size: cohorts need to be large enough to offer a diversity of business types and individuals, but not too large. We found 25 to 50 participants works best.  If your organization is too small to accommodate 25 people, partner with your local Chamber of Commerce or university to add outside leaders.
  • Frequency: meet a minimum of 4 times a year in-person, but 6 is ideal. In-person meetings foster networking, cooperation, and accountability.  Meet away from the corporate office to minimize distractions and provide a safe space for learning.
  • Small Groups: organize small groups of no more than 5 people to function as accountability partners outside of in-person meetings. Teams of this size are suited to work on cross-business projects.


  1. Focus Formal Learning on Critical Business Model Components

Henry and I partnered with Sue Todd, then Chief Strategy Officer for Corp/U, a Udemy company, to create learning-journeys.  These were distinct, focused, blended modules.  Participants completed self-paced learning units (a mix of reading, videos, and exercises), followed by a virtual large-group meeting at the end of the week.  This approach gave leaders a common language and level of understanding of our organizational mission, vision, strategy, and operating model.

Content mirrored critical business model components including finance, sales & marketing, innovation, operations, leading talent, and leading change.

Design tips:

  • Keep it Short: in the original cohort, learning journeys were between 5 and 6 weeks long. We learned this was too long and too much for busy executives running businesses.  Current programs average between 1 and 3 weeks per subject.
  • Customize Where Appropriate: if your business has specialized knowledge, don’t use an off-the-shelf course, customize. We learned that after getting feedback on our finance module.  Although good foundational knowledge, our leaders were looking to learn advanced financial skills as our group included actuaries and MBAs.  We worked with senior leaders to create a custom course using examples from our industry.
  • Include Senior Leaders: we found that linking senior leaders with formal course content is a best practice. They can provide examples of where and how participants can apply new concepts in their day-to-day work.


  1. Adopt an Outside / In Mindset

Henry created one of the most popular components of the program, the Immersion Site Visit.  To foster the outside / in mindset, participants traveled to other companies to learn from peer leaders and discuss how each approached opportunities and challenges.  Trips centered around a common theme (e.g., innovation and customer-centricity).   Working with business advisors, and using his connections, Henry organized trips to Apple, Google, Amazon, and the Home Shopping Network to name a few.

Design tips:

  • Pick the Right Industries: identify industries that expose leaders to new strategies, approaches, and tools they can apply in their business. Remember, what is common as dirt in one industry can transform another industry if introduced.
  • Get Multiple Perspectives: visit more than one company. If your theme is customer service, don’t just visit a noted company like Disney, get multiple viewpoints (e.g.; Starbucks, Costco, or Ritz-Carlton).
  • Support Pilots: make small amounts of funding available to try new ideas and/or approaches that are funded from a centralized budget. Think $15,000 – $25,000.  Just enough money to determine if an idea has potential.  If yes, then include in your normal budgeting / funding process.


Bottom Line

We found that 70% of program participants met or exceeded their revenue and profit targets.  This compared to 50% of all GM / P&L leaders across the company.  Adopt the three principles to achieve business success.

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