Who should run your program?

Leadership problems are persistently at the heart of failed programs. Crucial execution positions don’t get the meticulous attention given to other top management appointments.

Many programs fail because the program leader is simply not up to the job.

There are many things a company cannot control, from the economy to the competition. But you would think they would pay more attention to the one thing they can control – the capability of leadership teams on program execution. It gets limited attention – yet it is the single most important factor behind failing programs.

Four types of misguided appointment are repeatedly made

1. The “Most Affected” Director

– the person responsible for the function that seems to be most affected by the change.

The “Most Affected” Director appointment is usually seen by top management as a quick and neat solution to a difficult organisational problem. Unfortunately, it is a management fantasy that does not work.

Normally, he has no inclination to manage the program on a day to day basis – choosing instead to delegate responsibility to several “available” subordinates.

He devotes less than 50% of his time to the program because of other calamities in the business. In turn, the subordinates rarely commit anything approaching 100% of their time due to the demands of their “day” jobs.

Further, because the “most affected” function is favoured, critical dependencies are missed and a tribal, “finger pointing” atmosphere develops.

2. The Special Projects Director

– a senior person often identified on the organisation chart as “Special Projects Director.”

Typically, he has held senior positions in the company but has no particular aptitude for managing business-critical programs.

More often than not, he will be unable to recognise:

  • The key risks and challenges in the program
  • The nature of a suitable governance system
  • What the execution team should look like
  • An effective reporting and measurement system
  • When the program is in jeopardy – and what to do about it

The Special Projects Director is rarely successful in managing the program on a day-to-day basis.

3. The “Up and Coming” Executive

– a high flying middle manager given the job as a career development opportunity.

Usually, a committed high-energy person, who sees the opportunity as a stepping stone to greatness. But he may have little or no program experience and will certainly fail unless he receives massive support.

If he is a true high flyer, he will quickly recognise his problems and either secure the necessary support, or orchestrate a move to a different role.

Nevertheless, this is a high risk appointment for a complex, business-critical program.

4. The “Career” Program Director

– with the wrong personal characteristics and subject matter experience.

Blunders in program management appointments are identical to those that go wrong with other senior positions. For example, selecting people:

  • for a major customer delivery program without customer facing experience
  • for a major software development and delivery program – but who have previously led civil engineering programs, for example
  • who are “coordinator” types – but where they are now required to be fully responsible for delivering a business case
  • who may have been successful previously – but have no significant track record in complex, business-critical programs.

The choice of a business-critical program director demands the same painstaking attention that would be given to a CFO or COO appointment.

But unfortunately, selection of Program Directors does not get the same level of attention.

If you ask any CEO to list his top ten executives, a program director would be most unlikely to feature in that list.

How to choose a Program Director?

Even if you believe you have some candidates that tick all the right “track record” boxes, there are several factors to be considered when choosing a Program Director:

  • Recognise that all programs are not the same, any more than all businesses or business functions are the same. The precise nature and challenge of the program must be clearly understood.
  • How will the program and the candidate fit into the executive management structure? Are you prepared to give him the positional and delegated authority that matches the job?
  • Does he have the personal chemistry that is central to success – and an understanding of the key internal and external interfaces? Does he have stamina and perseverance to thrive in the spotlight, where his performance will be coldly assessed?
  • Is he inspired by the role and does he see it as a significant career opportunity?
  • Is he skilled in building successful teams, capable of operating in a high pressure environment?

Execution teams need diverse skills. Every key execution job should be defined in terms of the three or four mandatory requirements – things the person must be able to do to succeed.

So, what can you do if you are facing one of these challenges?

The advice is incredibly simple.

Select a Program Director – accountable to the program sponsor for the day-to-day management of the program. Spending 100% of his time executing the program, he should be experienced on programs of similar scale and complexity and know the difference between what “ought to be possible” and actually getting the job done.

Large programs that crash are mostly run by ill-equipped “Most Affected Director” and “Special Project Director” types.

Fewer failures are the result of “Career” Program Director or “Up and Coming” executive types. They are better able to recognise where they need help – and how to get the right support.

Thorny selection issues should be tackled head-on. Some people are in the wrong job and will never deliver the results the business needs.

For more strategy execution tips, download our ebook “The Mentor Edge.