Learning to Manage a Business Unit – A Best Practice Model for Leaders

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated May 2022

When you are promoted to head-up a business unit / profit centre or to join its senior team unfortunately there is no training course you can just go on to teach you how to avoid the many pitfalls.

The most common induction approach is to try and observe what others do and just kind of pick it up as you go along.

However, this approach is high risk - it’s success rests on the assumption that you will be able to “get it right first time” without any safety net!

There must be a better way ...

Leading a Business Unit – A Best Practice Model

We have been running Business Simulations for the last 10 years where leaders and managers, working in teams, manage realistic business unit scenarios.

From this unique perspective we have been able to identify 9 best practices which seem to set apart the top business unit performers from the rest.

Business Unit Leadership Model

A successful business unit leader will concurrently "juggle" 3 major concerns – Goals, Game and Governance.

A useful metaphor is to think of yourself as the captain and leader of the cockpit team of a large passenger jet.

1. Goals

This is your first key concern and involves 3 core aspects:

  • Manage the commercials
  • Manage the priority non-commercials
  • Manage all the other non-commercials

In the pilot metaphor this equates to maintaining the aircraft’s airspeed – if the pilots do not manage this properly nothing else will matter!

2. Game

This is your second key concern and has 4 important aspects:

  • Address serious problems (Reactive)
  • Exploit strategic opportunities (Proactive)
  • Listen to the market (Reactive)
  • Respect the brand (Proactive)

In the pilot metaphor this equates to navigating the aircraft – it is not enough just to have great airspeed – the pilots need to manage altitude and position at all times. 


This is your third key concern and involves 2 critical aspects:

  • Manage the risks
  • Manage the stakeholders

In the pilot metaphor this equates to communications with the controllers - otherwise the aircraft may enter controlled airspace without permission or arrive at busy airport unexpectedly - either of which carry a huge risk of mid-air collision. 

Developing Business Unit Leadership Skills 

The most effective and safest way to translate these challenging skills and practices into habits is through a team-based Business Simulation with an appropriate scenario played under the guidance of an expert Facilitator who has actually led business units (with all the scars on their backs to prove it).

We offer two main business unit / P&L Simulations:

XSIM - B2C - digital services business unit within a highly competitive market

YSIM - B2B - product manufacturing business unit within a highly regulated market

If you would like to find out more about what it’s like to experience these Business Unit Simulations and their underpinning models please get in touch.

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More about Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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