The deadly cocktail preventing execution success

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

In the third extract from David’s Insight Guide “Reflections on a lifetime in strategy execution”, he points out that most CEOs take little interest in program management – until something goes wrong.

To further compound the issue, the person with the right skill set to properly advise the CEO on the program – the Program Manager – is well down the pecking order. Instead, responsibility for the program lies with the “Most Affected Director”.

Read how this deadly cocktail of an unsuspecting CEO, “Most Affected” Director and underpowered Program Manager can effortlessly scupper the chances of successful program execution.

Small wonder that 80% of David’s time in the last 40 years has been spent on program “rescues”.

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

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 it’s rare.

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 industry – over and over again – with the same result.

However well intentioned, the “Most Affected” Director appointment is 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. 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.

Resource allocation is another chronic issue

Programs always require more resource than a company makes available. But, on a misfiring program, there is one never-ending feature magnifying this jam. That is, a plan based on a relatively small core execution team, supported by dozens of “partial people” from other functions.

It looks mesmerising in PowerPoint. But, it’s unmanageable – a huge drag on the program – causing massive friction, time-wasting, unproductive complexity and finger-pointing between functions.

Timesharing resource like this is a sure sign the business hasn’t done enough to convert “strategy-speak” into action. 

Worst of all, as Brooks Law demonstrates, these theoretical structures produce farcical convoluted communication systems that overload people and look as if they’ve been put together by a chimpanzee throwing darts at a wall.

The CEO is in a tricky situation

Yet, to understand why many CEOs wait for so long to take action, it’s worth reflecting on the unenviable position the CEO is in. They have a full diary with tons of competing distractions for their time.

One of their direct reports “owns” the program – probably the “Most Affected” director. A person they trust – and with whom they may have had a long business relationship. It’s safe to say there’s a strong loyalty factor in play.

Initially, the CEO feels the problems are a temporary setback which will be swiftly dealt with. But this is an instinct, based on a colleague’s historical performance. It’s rarely based on personal, in-depth experience of running complex programs.

This “experience” issue is of huge consequence. Experience matters – because what people don’t know can really hurt them.

By contrast, a CEO with a Sales, Marketing or Financial background will instinctively sense that something is wrong in any of one of these functional areas. They’ll see a big red flag telling them the story they’re hearing doesn’t make sense. Yet, they also know from experience they can fix most problems before they get out of hand.

So, although they may have macro-level knowledge of business-critical programs, they don’t normally have the background or experience to make comparable judgements about what it takes to run one.

Here, the CEO is utterly reliant on the “Most Affected” Director, who also doesn’t have the hard-bitten experience to “know” when a program is in deep trouble either. Typically, they have a different skill set which was honed in another domain like Operations or Technology.

“The person running the program is two levels down the management chain playing ping-pong in a wind tunnel”

In truth, when the various owners, sponsors, and directors are peeled away, the person actually running the program full-time could be one, but more likely two or three levels down the management chain.

They’re focused on the mechanics of the program – and may be familiar with project management methods and terminology. But they usually haven’t run a business-critical program personally before.

Worse, they usually have no organisational power in the company and are seldom seen as a “superstar.”

Let’s face it, they have an impossible job. Almost certainly, they play ping-pong in a wind tunnel all day long with other functions and external suppliers.

A blind spot for top management

The bottom line is; that this cocktail of an unsuspecting CEO, “Most Affected” Director and underpowered Program Manager is deadly.

Together, they add up to one of top management’s biggest blind spots in executing major programs.

Unlike the earlier Sales and Marketing example, where the CEO and another director would clearly have complementary experiences that would allow problems to be jumped on and fixed – this is hardly ever the position on a business-critical program.

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