The Gap Between Committed and Done: It’s About Managing the Process

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Jun 30, 2011

This is the second article in my series, What Good General Managers DO

I opened the series with a note that a Good General manager makes sure s/he has the following covered:

Let’s not call it “Process”

Today I want to address a topic on process. But I want to re-label the word process to be “make sure to get stuff done.”

I am never a fan of process for process sake, but I am a big fan of taking the chaos and drama out of executing.

As an executive or general manager you have to set a high standard of execution. That means you personally need to do what you say you will do, like be on time for meetings, make clear assignments with owners and deadlines, and then…

When something does not happen on schedule, enforce consequences. If you say, “Oh well, we didn’t make it, so just keep going till you finish”, you are setting a sloppy standard of execution and you are not delivering on your commitments.

Today I am going to talk about the the getting things done part. I will cover enforcing consequences in a future article in this series.

How I narrowly escaped disaster

I want to start with a personal story about this. When I got my first big job, managing a group of more than 150 people with multiple layers of management beneath me, I did not have experience getting things done leading an organization of this size.

Enter the hero of our story…

When I first met with my direct staff individually, one man came into my office and said, “I am your process manager.”

What I said to him is one of the things in my whole career I am least proud of and most embarrassed by… I did not have the leadership maturity to recognize what an awful thing this was to say to someone who works for you, when you meet them for the first time.

I said, “Wow, I never had a full time process manager before.” (Yes, cringe)

So let’s just fast forward past the part where he assumed he was getting fired, to where I recognized that he was saving my job.

The gap between assigning and doing

Here is what I mean: I am really good at translating high level strategy into super-clear actions with owners and measures. I see the big picture, I see the opportunity for how to win, I see what is in the way, and I can prioritize the right concrete tasks that will ensure we make strategic progress.

So imagine the staff meeting where we do this…

Everyone is clear about what we need to do and why. We have made assignments. And we have a schedule with measures and deadlines. Commence back-patting.

But then…

Everyone leaves the room and goes back to work. All the new stuff is sitting on top of a workload that is already consuming all the time.

Because the assignments are so clear and committed, I assume the new work is being worked on. But it is actually at pretty high risk.

Too busy to do new things

The inertia in an organization to keep doing the current work is very high. The resistance individuals need to break through to plan for, and prioritize the new work, is also very high. This is where it all stalls.

This is where my process manager saved the day.

  • Capture: He would sit in those staff meetings and take all the notes about what was decided and committed and he would write it up, distribute it, AND turn it into a project plan with dependencies and timelines.
  • Daily follow up: Then he would go around to every task owner, every week and say, how are you doing on this? He would exert regular, personal, visibility and pressure on what was committed.
  • Reporting: Then he would create a report and bring it into our staff meeting every week and let us know what was getting done on schedule and what (and who) was slipping. With that “process,” he enabled me to make sure we all got done what we committed to.

He made it easy for me to enforce consequences for being late (another key element of being a good general manager), because what was supposed to happen was spelled out so clearly. This was invaluable.

Without this process, would have failed to get stuff done on time. There is no question in my mind about this.

I really can’t emphasize this enough

As the leader, I was feeling pretty good about my strategic thinking, and my ability to translate the high level goals into specific, concrete actions to get there.

But as the leader, I was also too busy with strategy, financial planning, communications, customers, traveling to multiple sites, and general corporate stuff, to be the one to personally go around and get updates from everyone, and create reports to track it all.

I can say without a doubt, without my process manager, I would have failed.

I would have failed to deliver, so I would have failed in my job. I would have failed to advance.

Happily ever after

But if nothing else, I am a fast learner. And I know how to get help.

So forever after, in every other executive role I stepped into, I made sure that there was someone on my team who had the natural strengths, skills, and energy to do this process work, to keep the trains running.

As the leader I made the strategy, goals, tasks and measures clear, and this person would do the daily, detailed, relentless work to make sure we executed.

Having a strong partner with me on execution made sure that my organizations always delivered what we committed to. The role was not always called “process manager.” For example one time it was my finance partner, and another, my chief of staff.

Hire your hero

Have this person report directly to you, and give them a lot of power. This is not a low level administrative job. It needs to be someone who understands the business and someone who can understand the pressure you are under personally.

They need to be able to enforce priorities when you are running out of time and you are not there. It needs to be someone who can influence the people on your team who need to do the work, to do the work.

And even if you can convince a highly capable person not to report to you, it doesn’t work to have this role report into any one function because then the conversation about priorities is skewed. You have the proverbial fox guarding the hen house.

The person loses credibility with the other functions, so you don’t get as much stuff done. Delivering on time gives you huge competitive advantage in the market. You can be more responsive, more innovative, and win and keep more customers.

Don’t put on-time execution at risk. It’s too important. Get help!

So to add to our list of who you need help from:

  1. Don’t try to be a GM without a mentor or a coach.
  2. Don’t try to be a GM without someone to help you track and measure execution.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her new book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

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