Updated: Mar 18
There are many headwinds facing executive teams right now – COVID being the obvious existential threat – but there are several other factors that are causing leaders, their teams, and their companies, to fail.
Here are three that are nearly ubiquitous - but not the most obvious - right now (and some suggestions to mitigate them):
Shock and Awe. The military doctrine adopted by the US Military during the 2003 Iraq invasion was to quickly paralyze the Iraqi chain of command by overwhelming their ability to make decisions. By the time their command structure was getting information about one thing, and long before they could process what was happening on the battlefield and adjust, they were already getting hit by the next thing. The COVID pandemic was similar in that events unfolded very, very quickly. Many leadership teams struggled before the pandemic to make decisions in a timely manner. The ability of a leadership team to process new challenges, develop a strategy, and execute can take days, weeks, months or in extreme cases, years. With the added stresses (or opportunity, for some) the pandemic presents, some organizations are simply reacting to events – not managing them or positioning themselves to emerge stronger on the far side.
Tactical Myopia. Related to the leadership team’s paralysis is strategy losing out to tactical operations. Many organizations react to a hit in revenue by cutting payroll, and mid- to senior-level executives are often the easiest target. The workload for the daily operations of the company does not decrease when headcount does. The layoff survivors are left to pick up the slack. One consequence is executives end up doing tactical-level tasks instead of more the more strategic tasks they should be doing. The CFO is focused on month-end close instead of lining up financing for that big acquisition. The VP of HR is stuck doing payroll and benefits administration instead of doing succession planning or talent management. The CEO spends their time putting out minor fires instead of charting the course for the company. Put it another way, if the pilot of the plane is back serving drinks and peanuts, WHO IS FLYING THE PLANE? One of the easy ways to see this happening is if you get to the end of each day/week/month feeling worn out because things were busy but have a harder time actually quantifying what was actually accomplished.
Over-optimization. The best corporations have engaged in process improvement and efficiency optimization for decades. They are the equivalent of a F-1 racer – hyper-engineered for performance. They are running lean – from their supply chains to their teams – and often their cash flow. The downside is that when external or internal conditions become less-than-optimal, they cannot perform well, if at all. We have seen this in the past year as just-in-time supply chains have broken, high-performing teams were suddenly sent to work remotely, large swaths of workers came down with COVID, or adverse weather events wreaked havoc on operations or finances. Over-optimization has reduced the resilience of many companies. They had no contingency plans for their business or suppliers, little financial breathing room, and do way to deal with the pandemic. They had to either make things up on the fly, or had to spend “whatever it takes” to keep operating, or shut down completely.
As a recruiting company, we tend to see things through the lens of having the right people in the right positions. These systemic and existential problems can be addressed with two types of roles that not a lot of organizations have. The first is a Chief of Staff for the CEO or other principals. The second is someone responsible for business continuity, which can vary from a manager to vice president, or a team.
Let us define what these roles are and what they do.
The Chief of Staff
The President of the United States has a Chief of Staff. Likewise, a commanding general. And now it is a position finding its way into more and more C-suites. The Chief of Staff in corporations has rapidly proved it is a mission-critical position. The Chief of Staff reports to and supports a Principal – like a CEO, division president, or functional head, like marketing. The ultimate goal of a COS is to maximize the value of their Principal and the executive team. This is NOT the same function as an executive administrator. The COS helps manage the Principal’s time efficiently, and works to coordinate the efforts of the executive team towards achieving the organization’s strategy. Simply put, the Chief of Staff is a force multiplier – keeping the Principle focused 80/20 on external efforts and guiding the company (IE flying the plane) vs. internal stuff (serving drinks). They keep the organization focused on opportunity, not reacting to crisis. A great Chief of Staff is organized, intellectually and emotionally intelligent, and driven.
Does your organization need a Chief of Staff? The McChrystal Group, a leadership consultancy headed by former General Stan McChrystal, offers great advice on the matter HERE.
The other role we wanted to discuss is someone tasked with business continuity (or resilience, as more people are starting to call it). Simply put, this is the organization’s ability to mitigate risks to operating. The function is responsible for developing plans, systems, and strategies to prepare for any disruption in business operations. Depending on the size and complexity of the organization, this function can be range from an assigned collateral duty for someone to having a full team devoted to building plans and resilience for the organization. It can be a complex task, especially when the scope includes cyber threats. Plans and contingencies could include the likely (weather disruption), the possible & catastrophic (fire, cyber-attack), to the unlikely (a global pandemic).
For example, after 9-11, several financial institutions realized that all their data centers were located across the river from Ground Zero in Manhattan. If those data centers got hit by a terrorist attack or suffered catastrophic power grid failure, these organizations (and economy) would collapse. As a response, they now have redundant, hardened data centers dispersed around the country that can continue operations should one go down.
When researching this post, we spoke with several organizations that had pandemic response plans in place prior to the COVID outbreak. When we went into lockdown a year ago, they had already thought through how to move their entire workforce remotely while maintaining business operations without disruption.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, how many “historic” disruptions have there been in the last twenty years? Terrorist attacks, civil unrest, adverse weather events, wildfires, supply chain or infrastructure failure, a pandemic. Let alone more mundane events like a fire, active shooter, or power failure. What would happen if your company lost power or for a day? A week?
Does your organization have business continuity plans in place? If the answer is anything but a definitive “Yes” - adding someone to the staff whose function it to build those plans and resilience is important right now.
The opportunity cost of not doing so could mean the difference between hiring a FTE + minor changes in operations and process or losing the company.
If you decide that these roles are mission-critical to your organization, finding people with the experience to function as a Chief of Staff or Business Continuity Director is not that easy as it takes a unique combination of skill and experience. If there are no internal candidates up to the task, one great place to look for talent in this space are military candidates. Many senior military personnel have experience as a chief of staff for large & complex organizations. And the military is great at planning for contingencies and overcoming adverse situations. Many corporations like Amazon, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Walmart, and Home Depot have recognized the value and contribution Veterans can make based on their experience, education, and training.
At the Rivet Group, we have extensive experience connecting with military candidates transitioning to civilian organizations. If this is a direction you'd like to explore for your team, let us know. We also have a diverse network of civilian professionals ready to get to work for a new team.
If this is something you’d like to talk about further, let's talk! We are here to help.
The Rivet Group is a Veteran-owned executive search and consulting company that partners with organizations across the US.