When the CEO Must Become the CPO (Chief Process Officer)

Marissa Levin
Marissa Levin
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Traditionally, the CEO is responsible for the “heart” of the organization… the vision, culture, mission, strategy, and values. They are the “Chief Evangelist Officer,” or the “Chief Cultural Officer” or even the “Chief Emotions Officer” (yes I’ve seen that one too).

Conversely, it’s usually the COO that is responsible for the “blood and guts” of the organization” – the person that ensures the day-to-day and long-term operations within the organization can support the vision.

Strategy & Process are Interdependent
Experience – backed up by a lot of research and peer consultation – has taught me that strategy and process are two sides of the same coin, and that the CEO must take ownership for the creation of the core processes that enable a business to run. It doesn’t matter how strong a vision is. Without the processes required to execute, the strategy will fall flat. And while I absolutely believe that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” the one essential element that organizations require for healthy strategies, cultures, and ultimately growth is process.

Especially in today’s challenging economic climate, companies can’t afford to operate without strong discipline and unprecedented efficiency.

A recent Harvard Business Review blog entitled “What You Can Control in a Tough Business Climate”  (http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/02/what_you_can_control_in_a_tough.html) explains that in business, there are so many factors you can’t control, so the key is to focus on those areas that you can control. Your ability to execute your strategies is one of these areas, and in order to do that, the organization needs clearly defined processes.

The Changing Workforce
Shifting workforce demographics make this critical. By 2015, nearly half of the workplace will be Millennials (people born after 1977). As hiring increases, and baby boomers retire, “we will shift to a younger workforce who have a need for more feedback than organizations are used to giving, and will want to see indicators that the work they are doing matters to the organization.”

At the same time, the new “normal” volatile pace of business will require leaders to ensure that employees can shift quickly to meet new strategic directions. To shift quickly, employees will need very clear road maps. They will need to understand how Action A leads to Action B, which results in Outcome C. Today’s and tomorrow’s organization must run as efficiently as possible to keep employees happy and profits growing.

Whether or not you realize it, you are operating your organization with processes. From invoicing and collections, to project management, to hiring, to sales, you are taking steps to complete transactions. The questions you need to ask yourself are: “Are my processes strategic or reactive?” “Do my processes support my competitive advantages?” “Do my processes make more work for me and drain my resources, or do they help me to be more efficient and more profitable?”

It’s these types of questions that make process creation and engineering the CEO’s “job.” A customer won’t buy a product or service because a company has a good process. However, it is the process that allows a company to deliver a great product. 

The CEO’s Role
Another HBR blog entitled “Putting Process on the CEO’s Agenda” (http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/11/putting_process_on_the_ceos_ag.html) explained why CEOs must own process improvement to maintain the company’s competitive advantage.

If the CEO delegates process development to others, conflicts will surely arise between competing divisions. The sales teams will want to follow their processes, while the finance teams will want to follow theirs. Ultimately only the CEO, who is operating at the 50,000 foot level and can see how all of the organizational parts come together as a single strategic entity, can resolve these conflicts. This is precisely why Jack Welch  listed process improvement as one of his top strategic priorities when he was CEO of GE.

My Personal Experience
At Information Experts, I realized the need to closely examine our processes because everyone is working on multiple initiatives, and we don’t have a lot of time to pause. This has caused us to take our eye off the ball in some key areas – like proper invoicing and timely collecting. As CEO, I asked those who touch these key processes to STOP and PIVOT.  Over the period of a week, I implemented new ideas that I gathered from some trusted CEOs to fix some of these kinks – but then decided to spread my process analysis to the rest of the company.

I asked for feedback from my executive team about other processes that need some fine-tuning, and they let me have it. The result? A two-day process meeting this coming week to whiteboard all of our key processes and not leave the room until all of them are re-defined and ready for roll-out.

I’ve clustered them into four key management processes:

  • Strategy Development and Deployment (setting priorities and alignment, coordinating & controlling resources)
  • Performance Measurement (establishing reviews and determining compensation)
  • Talent Management (hiring, training, and promotion)
  • Operational Problem Solving

I discovered this structure in an HBR blog entitled, “Get Your Operations in Shape by Focusing on Process” (http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/02/get_your_operations_in_shape_b.html).

Once we re-define and implement our new processes, we will be ready for our next strategic off-site in August, with our quarterly all-hands meeting slated for September.

Although I’m process-oriented by nature, I’ve never rolled up my sleeves to collaboratively build or key processes. I’ve always stuck to the vision, and delegated that to my amazing executive team. But different organizational climates call for different measures. In today’s environment, nothing matters more than efficiency, and efficiency starts with tightly controlled processes.

I’ll let you know how the planning goes, and more importantly, how we do at execution.

Now It’s Your Turn
In the meantime, take a look at your own processes, and see how they are delivering for you.

In addition to the articles I cited, here are some other resources for you to read as well:

Does Your Company Suffer from Process Attention Deficit Disorder? – Harvard Business Review

When Is Process Improvement Strategically Important? – Harvard Business Review

What the C-Suite Needs to Do for Process Improvement – Harvard Business Review

Good luck!!

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