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"Major changes to the software process must start at the top."

                                    Watts Humphrey
                                    American Computer Scientist
                                    Managing the Software Process p.19

ACM DL Author-ize serviceThe operational executive sponsor

Phillip G. Armour
Communications of the ACM - Self managed systems, 2006


What We Really Want                                                                           

People who run companies mostly get from their people what they want.  That is, what they really want as evidenced by how they act and not by what they say they want.  The behavior of a leader is much more important than what the leader says. 

At a management meeting in Motorola in 1979, everything was going along fine, everyone was congratulating themselves on their performance when Art Sundry stood up and said directly and forcefully to Bob Galvin, the CEO, "...yeah, but our quality sucks!!"  He got Galvin's attention.  The CEO then proceeded to make it his #1 priority and Motorola turned into a byword for quality initiatives and quality products. 

Why did this turn around?  Because it was what the boss really wanted.

Doing what you DON'T want to do                                                           

"Commitment" is a funny word.  People use it to mean something they'd like to have happen.  But it means the opposite.  Doing what you want to is just doing what you want to.  Being committed to something means that you will do it, even when you don't want to.  Even if it is tedious, inconvenient, expensive, or painful--if you continue doing it, you are committed to it.  That's what it means.

This is true for quality or process initiatives--we will get them to work if we are committed to them.  If Senior Executives really want the changes (and that means the cost and effort as well as the results and savings) they will get them if they are committed to them.

And that means action.

Span of Control                                                                                       

Executives have a lot on their plates.  There are many priorities and they cannot all be #1.  Few CEOs can (or want to) spend the time and energy to focus on a problem the way Bob Galvin did.  So if a CEO cannot give really, really important issues the attention they deserve and need, what to do?

The primary job of a senior executive is not to manage--it is to ensure that the organization is managed.  It is not to issue orders or to follow-up on critical items--it is to ensure that where orders are needed they are issued effectively and when follow-up is critical then follow-up is done.  It is usually a poor, and seriously overworked, leader who tries to do all these things.  The real job of the executive is to build a system--the organization--that does these things.  The challenge with process changes is that unless the boss really wants them they tend not to happen.  The best way the boss can demonstrate this is by paying attention--by doing rather than talking.  But if the boss does not have the cycles, how will this happen?

The Operational Executive Sponsor: not too high; not too low                   

The best approach is for the boss to assign an "Operational Executive Sponsor"This is an executive with sufficient clout to get things done, to rattle a cage that needs to be rattled, to blow up a roadblock that needs to be removed.  This means the person is fairly high up in the organization.  If the likely roadblocks are also high in the organization, the Operational Executive Sponsor needs to have sufficient persuasive skills, rational arguments, compelling data and, sometimes, raw authority* to drive through the problems.

However, the Operational Executive Sponsor also needs to be low enough in the organization that he or she can pay appropriate attention to the day-to-day details of the change initiative.  Too high up and other priorities will dilute the focus and the change will fail.

It is a balancing act, but it is one that executives and organizations need to learn.

* There are levels of authority that are important for any leader to understand.  Leaders lead using a variety of skills and authorities and some are stronger than others.  They are, in order of strength from weakest to strongest:

  • Positional Authority--based solely on the position within a company, often evidenced by "pulling rank" and use of a grandiose title.  This is the weakest form of authority

  • Line Authority--this is when someone is assigned to manage the workload and responsibilities of a person.  It is slightly stronger, since there are tasks and planning activities that supplement the authority and add legitimacy to the direction and orders.

  • Intellectual Authority--this is when someone leads because they know more.  It is significantly stronger since there are legitimate reasons why this person is in charge.

  • Personal Authority--some people have an "aura" of leadership.  It may be that they have a commanding style or they are charming, but people follow them because of personal and personality attributes displayed by the leader

  • Ethical Authority--is probably the most powerful of all.  In this case the person leads because they have a vision, they share that vision, and they act in accordance with certain ethical precepts, specifically showing commitment to attaining the vision, especially with personal sacrifice. 

The strongest leaders have elements of all of these, but focus on the more effective leadership attributes.



The Operational Executive Sponsor