The role of the executive. whether in the organization or in the specific context of governance, is to make decisions that have significance, can be implemented, and will stick.
The literature assumes that "executives" are as a matter of definition sufficiently well-placed in the organization to provide "top cover" or "air support". As this story line goes, the executive has a strong interest in the success of the investments (projects, if you will) because they are accountable for that success. They understand the business drivers, and are able to determine the balance between speed, cost and quality. When things need to be smoothed over, a few words between executives can result in a remarkable increase in cross-group cooperation. When a project manager needs a bit of support, the mere possibility of the executive having to get involved serves as a major deterrent. When project managers have the opportunity of presenting their project at milestone reviews, it can be a make-or-break moment; that in turn provides the governance staff (PM, security, etc.) with the opportunity to help the PMs get through those reviews. If unfortunate events occur, the executive may be able to reach into some sort of reserve fund, or at least reshuffle priorities across other activities, to allow resources to move to where they are needed. And, when the project is successful, the sponsor has some ability to set the corporate rewards machine to flowing.
In order to have these capabilities, the executives must:
- Be fully accountable for the success of their initiatives.
- Have the ear of the top executives.
- Have quite a bit of discretion to act, or not act.
- Have discretionary resources.
- Have some control over their time. If "managing by walking around" was rare when it had to be written about, it is very much rarer today. I am starting to think that this is the single biggest factor that distinguishes an executive from an overpaid middle manager.
- More meetings, more paperwork, more meetings, more rules, more meetings. Maybe the flood of "information", all requiring reading, digestion and collaboration, has achieved critical mass. If the executives do not have time to participate meaningfully, how meaningful is their participation?
- Rules. Ever-increasing compliance requirements are being levied on both the technical work and the basic processes for managing the organization itself. Organizations are run by rules, not by leaders. (Of course, one might argue that the events in so many private and public organizations over the past 10 years provide clear evidence that rules are a poor but necessary alternative where leadership is completely lacking).
- As a sub-set of "rules", there is not much in the way of overt discretionary funding. A lot of deals get made under the table, which undermines governance even further, but the modern executive doesn't seem to have the resources to make an impact on a project once it is launched. They most certainly do not seem to have any way of rewarding the project team for a job well done, except perhaps to mentor one or two them to more important roles as the executive herself moves up the organization (or to others).
- It does seem to me that executives are increasingly insulated by politics (internal, not partisan) from any real accountability. They take the bonuses and nobody at the top gets fired, even if things do not go well. Rocking the boat just gets the executive chucked out of it; sinking quietly yields a generous severance or pension.
What do you think? Are there lots of enabled executives out there? If so, let's hear about organizations are making that work.