3 leadership traits preventing business transformation success

David Hilliard is CEO of Mentor Europe. He’s been at the heart of business transformation execution for nearly 40 years.

In the second extract from David’s “Reflections on a lifetime in strategy execution”. He believes CEOs and business leaders need to be more actively involved to achieve strategic program success.

If you’d like to read the entire Insight Guide, it’s available here.

Sadly, program rescue is the reality

80% of my time has been involved in program rescue.

In nearly every case, the problems I’ve tackled to get a transformation program back on track were not only predictable, but entirely preventable. They were “designed-in” from the outset.

Reconstituting business-critical programs is hugely time consuming and expensive – and never achieves the original objectives.

And that hasn’t changed in my nearly 40 years in this business.

Success rates do climb dramatically when realistic plans and processes are put in place at the outset of a transformation program. Yet this rarely happens.

Many business leaders often use the words like targets and plans interchangeably. Yet, targets are not plans. There’s a world of difference between them. Leaders should learn to separate them because it causes needless mayhem in program teams.

I’d like business leaders to be more visibly engaged and conspicuous in these vitally important programs, especially in these three areas:

1. Why do smart executives drag their feet so much before taking radical action?

Why does it take some dramatic force to realise the emperor has no clothes?

Sadly, it’s regarded as “the norm” these days. Yet, it needn’t be that way.

Typically, a client program had been off the rails for many months, despite management attempts to retrieve the situation.

A short Healthcheck usually revealed the program was not anywhere close to meeting the client’s original objectives.

Signs of crisis were everywhere – frantic activity; extensive overtime; impressive looking presentations; crisis-driven war rooms and people working as individuals, focused on getting “their bit” right.

So, why do so many CEOs who seem passionate about building high-performance organisations, delay taking action for so long?

Why do smart, no-nonsense CEOs back off making decisions about bringing in expert help in the face of incontrovertible evidence their program team is pushing water uphill with a rake?


2. “For the most part, it was top management gone AWOL – dressed up as delegation.”

At first, the signs of trouble trickle out slowly. Perhaps, a critical milestone has been missed – or a key customer has complained. Maybe some team members seemed at the end of their tether. Or perhaps the CEO has seen the warning signs before and has a “feeling” the story does not hang together?

Something like this is usually the trigger event – the event that prompts the CEO to dig deeper.

The reasons programs continue to nosedive have remained constant across the years, irrespective of the business sector. To understand why it took so long to take action, it’s worthwhile reflecting on the typical circumstances that first led to the problem.

At one end of the scale, explanations range from vague objectives; fantasy plans; dreadful supplier performance and hopeless control systems.

At the other extreme – truant sponsorship; unworkable organisation structures; under-resourced teams – and karaoke program management.

More often than not, the critical link between strategy and execution is broken. Many “strategic” programs are not treated as if they’re strategic at all.

The program sponsor tended to be an “absentee” Director who set objectives, allocated funds, selected the Program Manager and held sign-off authority.

But, for the most part, it was top management gone AWOL – dressed up as delegation.

3. It is almost unheard of to find a Program Manager reporting to the CEO

Even when the journey from the boardroom to the marketplace has to pass through a “bet the company” program, it is rare to find a Program Manager reporting to the CEO. It does happen – but not often.

The nuts and bolts of program management are of low interest to most CEOs, until something goes out of whack. For this reason, programs are typically given to someone we’ll call the “Most Affected” Director. This is not a real title – but it’s usually the person responsible for the function most impacted by the change.

This appointment is a bizarre organisational mystery – because these individuals normally don’t have either the time, inclination or experience to manage the program.

Regular business calamities prevent them from spending any more than 15% – 20% of their time on the program. Instead, they delegate responsibility to one, but more usually to two or three managers.

So, in this kind of setup, the barriers to becoming a program manager are so low that a turtle could jump them.

It’s easy to see why business-critical programs do not get the organisational visibility and experienced management they need.

What’s more, the “most affected” function occupies a privileged position in the business, at the expense of other functions.

Eventually, communication between functions becomes tribal; critical dependencies are missed and a “finger pointing” atmosphere develops. Over time, the program loses focus and priority with other functions, with predictable results.

No experienced Program Manager, worth a candle, would consider working in a hare-brained “mission impossible” setup like this. But it happens every day of the week across the industry – over and over again – with the same result.

However well-intentioned, the “Most Affected” Director appointment is, it’s a complete abrogation of responsibility by top management. An ineffective management mechanism for dealing with a thorny organisational problem known as . . . “who do we have that’s senior enough to run this program?

”Sadly, it’s a deeply flawed management delusion. And it’s the worst way to fill a leadership position on a business-critical program and always leads to an execution debacle. It doesn’t happen overnight – but eventually, it does.

What do you do when your luck runs out?

This article is a part of an Insight Guide by David called “Reflections on a Lifetime in Strategy Execution.” To find out how to steer clear of expensive, time-consuming – and in some cases, career-damaging program “rescues”, download the entire document now.

Or feel free to feedback any comments you may have directly to David via dhilliard@mentoreurope.com