Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Transitioning into senior management – Part 6: taking a non-CEO, CXO position – 2

Posted in job search and career development by Timothy Platt on June 2, 2011

This is my sixth installment in moving into senior management (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development, postings 158-162 for parts 1-5.) And it is my second posting to focus here on the roles and responsibilities of the non-CEO executive officer. In Part 5: taking a non-CEO, CXO position – 1 I built a foundation for this discussion with a discussion of titles, and of how senior-sounding titles do not necessarily correspond with senior-acting responsibilities and ranges of action. So I use a generic CXO as in Chief Officer for functional area X as a placeholder title, but this is not about titles per se. In this posting, and in general in this Guide, read CXO as meeting executive officer requirements and responsibilities, as I started to outline in Part 5 and as I continue here.

At the end of Part 5 I stated:

• “A new senior executive has to find an effective, working balance point between taking a leadership role and making final decisions at an executive level, and working on a team where final decisions would be made by others, individually and collectively.

This involves working within overall budgetary and other constraints and it involves discerning and working within gray areas of responsibility and responsibility overlap. And as noted in earlier postings of this series, that is largely about effective communications and negotiations – but within an overall strategic-to-the-organization framework.”

I specifically cited budgetary constraints for a reason in that. This is for many new CXO’s where a first real challenge to leadership appears, and it can be a career changer depending on how it is managed. And to take this out of the abstract I want to at least briefly outline some of the details from one of my own workplace experiences, as a selective case study. I took a position as CIO for a large retail operation, and my goal was to rebuild their systems and scale them up to a capability level needed to more actively, effectively support their business transactions flow.

There were three areas that needed significant change, two of which I knew about when I started on day one, from my pre-hire research and from the interview and hire process itself.

1. Their call center was disorganized, with software systems in place that did not connect and work together properly. So call center personnel could not reliably access repeat customer information that they needed when online or on the phone, or enter in new data in such a way that the next employee could reliably call this up when needed.
2. Their networked hardware systems were a tangled, disorganized mess that had simply grown without plan, making for a system that was difficult to maintain and impossible to scale up.
3. Their phone system was similarly built out without an organizing plan and parts of their system could become overloaded at peak business hours leading to dropped calls and with failure initiating calls at all, at times.

Addressing Point One meant putting a hold on any new software acquisitions, and working with the best of breed available and in place to more effectively connect this system together. Here, best in breed definitely included capability fro being functionally interconnected, and a lot of this meant working with the hands-on technical staff to get everything more compatibly configured. This was and could only be a first step but it did provide effective short term resolution to some previously vexing problems and it did improve work flow for the call center staff and make their lives easier. This did not, I add, significantly call on new budget expenditures to complete and it saved some money from dropping some monthly licensing fees for software no longer used.

Addressing Point Two required some cash expenditures, but once again this did not significantly dent the budget. Most of what was needed in the way of hardware was in fact there. It was just organized, connected and configured without an overall organizing plan and no one had stepped back to look at the entire system for overall optimization purposes before. Everything had always been done on this system at the level of meeting immediate here and now needs and with this one server or router, or whatever as the sole focus of attention – until the next crisis arose. Then the focus of attention would shift to that, and only that.

The third point is why I cite this story as a working example. When you find the type of situation that I encountered leading to the development of the problems of Points One and Two, a problem of the type cited in Point Three should not be too much of a surprise. But this is one that can easily become quite expensive to fix. And the third party telephony systems and service provider that this business had its support contract with, was owned by a friend of one of the business owners so addressing this challenge involved both budgetary and interpersonal relationships challenges.

• The owners of this business wanted greater systems effectiveness and efficiency so they could increase business and profits from their investments.
• They wanted to achieve this at minimal up-front cost.
• There were clearly going to be constraints and pressures involving who would get to do this work, with potential conflict between meeting the objectives of the first two bullet points of this list, and retaining and sustaining a long standing friendship with their current phone systems provider.
• And of course any new third party provider sales representative for possible Point Three solutions immediately started to try and up-scale any potential sales, pushing the most comprehensive and expensive packages they thought they could get me to agree to. I ended up meeting with representatives from four other providers and I heard essentially the same story every time “… but if you add in this, you can also get ….”
• Any effective response to Point Three would also serve to more fully address Point One, and with a version 2.0, next level scalable solution to it.
• This would also connect into any resolution to Point Two, as their call center, their sales force and others had to be able to effectively coordinate phone and online, with their data and information access and sharing through the internal network. Any solution here would ideally at least, mean making the How of all of that transparent to the user and it would accomplish that and still be further scalable.
• And bottom line, this all had to be done inexpensively so as to avoid significantly cutting into business liquidity or owner profits. Yes, this bullet point list begins and ends with budgetary considerations.

My goal here is not to discuss how I resolved this complex of challenges, but rather to cite it as a working example of how a non-CEO CXO has to both exercise creative leadership, and work closely and effectively within larger systems and according to sometimes very tight constraints. In this, I was able to play off the cost-effectiveness and even savings in addressing Points One and Two, against costs and potential costs in addressing Point Three. A realistically scaled new phone system provider solution was selected, and after a great deal of discussion to establish owner buy-in, but some telephone systems work was still carved out to keep the owner’s friend on with this business as a continuing customer for him too. This was not perhaps a perfect solution, but it was a mutually acceptable workable solution that did lead to greater effectiveness and scalability – and that did lead to increased sales volumes and profits. And I add I am still learning from this experience. Learning need never end.

As a final thought on this and with that case study in mind, I note a crucially important detail.

• This type of initiative can only work to the extent that you know, think through and plan for the salient details in what you face, and both for potential challenges and opportunities.

Here, that meant meeting and learning about the people involved and how they saw and worked with each other, as much as it meant learning the hardware and software systems in place, and their strengths and limitations.

I am going to turn to discussion of issues that arise for new CEOs in my next series installment. And some of these issues closely mirror the challenges that a non-CEO CXO faces and some are unique to the CEO position.

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