187 – A high functioning Executive. What would it take?

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         1100 words


This is a question I was asked recently by a reader. Having read several posts critical of the behaviour of the Executive (What can a culture survey, an organisational self assessment, and your Executive’s risk appetite tell you?, The Executive. What exactly is their role? , Does your Executive suffer from altitude sickness?, and The Executive: filters, traffic controllers or drivers? ) she wanted to know whether I had a solution. Knowing that it is easier to be critical than creative, I cast my mind to thinking about the nature of the problem and some potential solutions.

I think the starting point is to understand the problem. In a nutshell, I think the following issues illustrate the problem:

  1. The Executive is overloaded with the small stuff handed to them by councillors (not the council). Much of it has to do with the personal idiosyncrasies of councillors and behaviours arising from their inability to work together as a group. It is dysfunctional, urgent and produces little value for the community. There are better ways for potholes to be reported.
  2. The Executive has to deal with high level relations with external organisations and strategic external pressures. These are often CEO to CEO relationships and cannot be readily delegated.
  3. The Executive is not putting enough time and effort into leading the organisation. Their focus on councillors and the external environment takes most of their time and energy. At the same time, they worry about problems 1 and 2 being made worse so they try to control organisational communication and decision making. When this is done ‘efficiently’ by time poor leaders it drives dysfunctional management behaviours.
  4. The Executive operates independently of managers and participates in the Senior Management Team (SMT) episodically. There is frequently no genuine and continuous engagement with the SMT in strategy and decision making. Managers are included in decision making when it suits the Executive – which is usually when they have the time and energy to do it. Managers are effectively isolated from information and the strategy decisions being made continuously by the Executive.

Obviously there are different solutions possible. One potential solution is to take some risks with councillors, particularly the CEO, and deal with the impacts of their behaviour on the performance of the organisation. Calling them on their indulgent use of Executive time for personal gratification and the impact it has on the effectiveness of the whole organisation would start to make them more accountable.

Keeping councillors focussed on strategic issues and how to create best value for the community they serve will make them publicly accountable for their ability to focus on the big picture and the long-term. The councillors who continuously seek personal aggrandisement or always want to deal with operational details at the expense of bigger strategic matters will be found out. Don’t help them hide their lack of interest or ability in dealing with complex issues.

The organisation needs Executive leadership. Their ‘absence’ while they respond to the urgent (and frequently unimportant) activity initiated by councillors has a consequence. Without guidance on strategy (i.e. what services and service levels will be provided to which parts of the community), common priorities cannot be established or organisational effort focussed on achieving them. It is difficult to engage the whole organisation in doing something if only the leaders know what needs to be done (and they are making it up as they response to external pressures).

Planning processes are frequently ineffective because too little time and effort is put into them by the Executive. The annual planning cycle and business unit by business unit planning are inadequate to deal with the strategic challenges facing councils. Integrated planning that effectively links strategy to planning, and maintains that link as strategy changes, is required. Leaders need to provide the framework for the rest of the organisation to act.

In saying this, the Executive should avoid driving strategy implementation from the top or it risks diminishing middle managers’ decision making skills, initiative and ownership of results. Strategy implementation needs to be driven by managers and guided by the Executive. This is only possible if the strategy is clearly communicated. The risk otherwise is that the Executive will become involved in ‘re-managing’ by remaking the decisions previously made by managers because they are inconsistent with strategy. This undermines and demotivates managers, resulting in more decisions flowing to Executive meetings.

The Executive should also to avoid becoming the ultimate coordinating mechanism for cross-functional decision making or it will have a continuous supply of escalated decisions to make. This happens when organisations are highly siloed and the only way interface conflicts can be resolved is if they rise to the top of the silo and ‘flow’ across when Directors take them to Executive meetings. The solution is to better understand cross-functional processes and design organisational decision making processes to reflect process priorities, not functional priorities. This takes time and energy that the Executive frequently lacks.

If the Executive improved organisational processes they would create and capture benefits in customer service and productivity that could reduce the amount of ‘small stuff’ being generated by councillors. Fewer potholes to report. Fewer complaints about telephones not being answered. It could also reduce operating costs and increase value. Reviewing and redesigning services is an intensive process that requires skills and involves taking risks that need Executive support. If inefficient work practices are to be replaced with efficient practices, it is likely to have industrial relations implications and increase the risk of service failure in transition until the new service design is mastered.

Effective decision making processes would assist in reducing the Executive workload and enabling managers to support strategy. It would enable more decisions to be made and faster. This inability to do this is a common criticism of councils. The decision quality should also improve with consistent and justifiable decisions being made. This could include using tools such as RAPID, rapid prototyping and ‘iterative interaction’.

As a last thought, not every manager is equal. The Executive tends to treat each manager as though they have the same skills and ability to contribute towards leadership and management of the organisation. Some councils are starting to think differently with the creation of ‘group manager’ roles sitting between Directors and Managers. These ‘super’ managers are presumably expected to contribute more towards strategy development and implementation than Managers. In some ways they are the mini ‘Chief Operating Officers’ for their division. Often they are in resource intensive operational areas.

There are various ways that the Executive could create more time and energy to focus on value adding activities. All involve taking risks. Most involve better harnessing managers as organisational leaders. Some require organisational performance to be improved through service redesign.