Chief of Chaos and Complexity - Delivering Major Contracts (Part I)

Chief of Staff - A key business enabler


Not quite what I expected!

We all make mistakes.  Arguably one of mine was walking into my client’s office and saying “John, what you really need right now is a Chief of Staff.”  John, a very talented executive with whom I had worked previously, considered this briefly before looking me in the eye and stating unequivocally, “Well that’ll be you then Anthony.”

John was the CEO of a consortium (HP, Fujitsu, EADS and GD and Logica) contracted to deliver a managed secure fixed and deployed digital desktop infrastructure to 340,000+ users via 160,000+ desktops at 2,000+ locations in more than 20 countries worldwide.

With the contract (value $5bn+) not long won, the Consortium was in the early days of delivery and were struggling with the deployment of the first tens of units. 

Negotiations had been protracted and the contract had been awarded without deferring key milestones.  To meet a punishing timetable the joint organisation had been ramped up, growing massively in a short space of time.  Supporting structures and processes had hardly been defined, let alone implemented.  Yet expectations in terms of visible delivery to the customer were high.  Standing up the business had taken a back seat to more tangible and tactical issues related to client delivery.

Unsurprisingly the Consortium was experiencing a level management gridlock, unable to fully address strategic and tactical issues affecting our organisation, our parent, our partners and our end customers.

What we needed, and urgently, was more effective management of the business; the right MI, a clear and effective governance structure, a meeting drumbeat, and some ruthless triaging.

I had been engaged to recommend improvements to joint operations across the consortia.  Sometimes a far more practical approach is needed.  People embody good practice not operating frameworks. This is where the role of Chief of Staff comes in.

Start Up - Some initial challenges of delivering a major programme and the impact of getting them wrong

Failure of new business initiatives, including acquisitions, is still high, unnecessarily so.  Especially with large contracts and delivery of major programmes.  Professionalization of programme and project management is having a positive impact, yet many of the root causes lay elsewhere, at a business level not a programmatic one.

Failure often originates with poor scoping.  Not just of requirements, in the nature of the relationships.  Service levels, milestones, processes and functional requirements get defined, but not how individual organisations will work together.  Hope is never a good strategy, yet we are rarely clear in our expectations of new relationships.  More than once I’ve needed to address the impact of contracts where the commercial and operational relationship of key stakeholders has not been properly anticipated.

One of the least acknowledged causes of failure is poor business structuring.  Entering a new market sector, or delivering a major contract, is not simply an extension of existing business or the execution of a programme.  Especially during early stages.  The team goes through the same journey as a start-up enterprise, from immaturity to maturity, from informal to industrialised ways of operating.  Each stakeholder community has its own demands and a discrete P&L needs to be managed from a business perspective not simply a delivery one. 

Seeing many businesses go through similar learning curves with each new major contract, I have long advocated developing the capability for standing up new business units to manage new products and services.  Without this managing the business and delivering to the customer get confused, with the former invariably suffering in the initial stages.

Some practical reflections of this are the lack of a clear operating model and management rhythm, organisational ineffectiveness, weak delivery, immature stakeholder management, partnership, collaboration, and poor integration within the enterprise, with parents, partners, and clients.

Another contributory challenge is overburdening top talent.  Many organisations over-rely on individual performers. Inevitably the most capable are expected to deliver far more and become vulnerable potential single points of failure.  This is especially critical during start-up. Even the most capable can be overwhelmed by a morass of tactical as well as strategic issues without proper support.

This has a major impact on business performance.  The result is the classic ‘hockey stick’ with significant lost value in the first 12 – 24 months and the struggle to recover in subsequent years.  The cost is high: reduced profit, lost opportunity and damaged relationships.

Having the right business management structure and support from the outset is vital.  Considering the tens if not hundreds of millions lost in the early stages, it is a sound, yet often neglected, investment.

A familiar story from my perspective.   This is where the role of the Chief of Staff (CoS) can be a real plus.  Originally a military role, its purpose and value have only recently started to be recognised and applied in commercial organisations.  When first mooted, my client and the customer understood the rationale immediately; internally many struggled with the concept.  It needed some explanation.

A Chief of What?

Traditionally a Chief of Staff is the primary aide-de-camp to a senior leader, and coordinator of supporting functions.  The role takes various forms, dependent on the circumstances and people involved.  It can be a performed by a young-gun simply to add firepower and drive a raft of different initiatives.  However, as conceived, it is much bigger and more pivotal function executed by an experienced senior leader whose primary motivation is the good of the whole, who delivers significant, though often unseen, value across an organisation, positively impacting the bottom line.

Enabler and Force Multiplier – The primary function of the CoS is to free an organisation’s leader to fulfil their core function of leading the organisation, supporting them at every level, enabling her or him to do their job most effectively. 

An EA ensures that a CEO stays airborne, mobile, informed and in control of their time.  The CoS is a force multiplier, delegate in absentia, and a trusted adviser, capable of overseeing the daily management of the organisation.

Navigator and Gear Box – Where the CEO is driver and engine, the CoS provides extra bandwidth to anticipate challenges, and ensures effective transmission between the executive, the rest of the organisation and key stakeholders on every conceivable issue that the CEO may be interested or embroiled in. 

Gatekeeper and Triage – The CoS is a buffer between a CEO (and often the wider executive team) and the rest of the organisation, generally working behind the scenes to triage work, solve problems, mediate disputes, and deal with issues before engaging the CEO.  It also helps free the other CxO roles to focus on their core missions.

Trusted Advisor – The CoS is also often a confidante and advisor to the CEO, acting as a sounding board for ideas.  It is a close and highly trusted working partnership requiring excellent personal chemistry, in which the CoS needs an excellent understanding of their boss’s heart as well as mind.

It is not a ‘mini-me’ role; part of the value comes from a different perspective.  Whilst fiercely loyal to their sponsor and the leadership team, the CoS needs the ability to question, challenge, and play devil’s advocate, protecting and promoting the good of the whole enterprise.  They need the latitude to name the elephant in the room without creating a rampage, to precipitate the hard conversations and ensure that actions and agreements are honoured.

Focus, priority and pace – The other critical dimension of the role is ensuring that the organisation knows where it is headed, what is happening, what it is doing, and how it needs to respond.  The CoS needs to know what is going on and who should be doing what, and in what sequence, at all times.  Ensuring there is a clear management agenda, addressing the right strategic and tactical, issues at the right time.  Maintaining the cadence for managing the business, the ‘battle rhythm’ of meetings, reports, and reviews.  They need to understand the impact of stakeholder, organisational, operational issues on the business, and how each part will be affected and needs to respond, at least at the highest level, sufficient to be able to prompt and coordinate a response. 

Business Operations – Where the COO’s primary focus is delivery by the business to its customers and achieving associated operational targets, the CoS’s focus is the smooth operation of an enterprise as a business.  

To be effective they need internal organisation to operate smoothly and are frequently best placed to know not only what is going on, but what is working and what is not.  They help to see and plug the gaps, integrating across business and technical, organisation and people boundaries.

They will frequently establish and have oversight of the war room, business operations or enterprise PMO, and associated business governance, review and reporting cycles and MI requirements.

Execution – A key aspect of the role is ensuring execution, chasing actions and having the hard conversations with individuals needed to resolve issues, precipitate change and positive outcomes.

Eyes and Ears – Every leader needs to walk the talk and the corridors; however, time and opportunity are limited and the demands to ‘meet and greet’ can be overwhelming.  The CoS shares this load, formally and informally, being a valuable second set of eyes and ears with the opportunity to see and hear things a leader may not, due to their position, time and circumstance.

Stakeholder Management – Establishing and maintaining strong relationships with all stakeholders inside the organisation and outside it. 

Communication and Dialogue – Ensuring effective communication and that the right conversations are being taking place.  Making space for the discussion of strategic, tactical and operational issues.  Being a conduit for messages, a sounding board for exploratory discussions such as ‘How would this be received?’ and ‘How might this work?’, up and down the organisation.

Chief Collaborator and Team Coach – Coaching and encouraging better teamwork, collaboration and partnership working, ensuring that the necessary structures are in place so people can work together effectively. 

Character and Style

Requiring natural gravitas and the ability operate at all levels, this is an exceptionally demanding role, not for the faint-hearted!  A natural interim assignment, best done as 12 to 24-month tour of duty.  In post, you will need to be pro-active, tenacious, self-reliant, resilient and versatile, bringing continuous energy, intercepting and containing issues.  The CoS can take a lot of fire and needs to have a thick skin, yet without being insensitive.  The role requires tact, diplomacy and a high degree of emotional intelligence, as well as intellect.  You will be constantly pulled between trivia and top priorities, checking minutia whilst maintaining the bigger picture. With a ridiculously heavy workload you are likely to be on deck first and off-line last!

That said it can also be hugely rewarding.  Giving insight into many different aspects of an overall business it can be an invaluable ‘seat of the pants’ apprenticeship that is frequently a stepping stone to a much bigger job. 

Personally, it is a favourite role, affording real opportunity to join the dots and drive business performance to get the ‘big train set’ to work.  It has also often been a key enabler; getting the business to run smoothly is a necessary precursor to more strategic change, and I have subsequently moved on to roles such as Director of Transformation to address longer-term organisational development.

Finding the Right Person

Often a difficult role to source, given the requisite personal characteristics, capabilities, expertise and experience (especially with a new post, when someone experienced is better able to set the right tone and tempo), whilst highly influential it need not be sourced internally.  There are significant advantages to hiring in, injecting a fresh perspective and much needed expertise and experience into the organisation, as well the independence needed to execute the role effectively.

Engaging an independent management consultant can be a good solution.  With broader experience and capabilities, they can advise and execute outside of political, parochial or personal career concerns, with minimal bias, baggage, or commercial self-interest. 

Key Enablers

To be successful the role needs to set up in the right way, with a clearly communicated mandate and the buy-in of the leadership team as well as the executive sponsor.

The leader needs to empower the role to act autonomously and in absentia, with delegated authority, without being micro managed. 

The temptation to make the CoS the de facto programme manager for a raft of projects should also be resisted.  If something needs more than oversight, i.e. the care and attention of a manager, someone else should be found to do it.

What are You Waiting For?

It is an odd contradiction that many organisations pay a great deal to attract and retain top talent, yet underinvest in enabling them to do what they were hired for and do best.  Most leaders are oversubscribed and often distracted from their primary objectives by a raft of operational and tactical issues, especially in highly complex environments.  

The Chief of Staff can be an invaluable addition to any executive and their team.  As well as freeing the leader to do their job, and supporting the leadership team, the role inherently bridges the gaps between structure and people, promoting more collegiate, collaborative, partnership practices.  More broadly, if ever there was a role intended to help manage volatility, uncertainty, change and ambiguity it is this one! 

The CoS is a key enabler that mitigates risk and leverages an organisation’s most important asset, its people.

In John’s organisation, with a sound management regime in place, working to a clear rhythm, we clawed back our time and perspective, and gained traction with strategic as well as tactical issues.  When I left 18 months later, we were well on our way to fulfilling the initial contract, having deployed over 125,000 end user devices.  Our customer was happy and signing up to a further very substantial tranche of business, the organisation was operating profitably and there were no surprises!  A magnificent team effort, in which I was privileged to help get the business to operate effectively and forge five initially disparate and competing parties into a single high-performing team working in open partnership with the customer.  Job done!

About Anthony de Sigley

Anthony de Sigley is an independent management consultant specialising in strategic business transformation.  With over 25 years of experience, he has advised on and led major strategic transformational initiatives and change programmes, working with global enterprises, consortia, SMEs, government organisations and NGOs, delivering step changes in organisational capacity, operational effectiveness and business performance.

Anthony has held the role of Chief of Staff in a number of organisations, including two major consortia, Affinity (EDS, IBM, AT Kearney and PwC) and ATLAS (HP, Fujitsu, EADS, GD and Logica).

In part 2 of Anthony’s series, he shares lessons learnt in successfully bringing together disparate stakeholders, including large groups of consultants, often with differing political agendas, to act as one company, working collaboratively to deliver targeted outcomes.

About Issoria

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