On becoming a C-level executive and developing breakthrough strategies
This is the sixth in a series of PMI Congress papers prepared by the author to reflect on the rapidly emerging discipline of strategic portfolio management that includes everything the enterprise undertakes, particularly ongoing operations; as opposed to only the management of programs and projects in a portfolio. The first of these papers (Garfein & Witty, 2004) chronicled how Yellow Roadway Corporation developed and implemented breakthrough strategic initiatives. These strategic initiatives were implemented by program managers working closely with functional managers who, by the way, also had demanding ongoing operational responsibilities.
Four years after that first paper, it has become clear that there are significant new opportunities when strategy becomes an integral part of portfolio management and when it is integrated with operations. The opportunities may be found in developing educational materials around strategic portfolio management, new consulting initiatives and new career advancement paths.
Accordingly, this paper addresses what it takes to become a C-level executive and develop breakthrough strategies by (1) Providing a comprehensive strategic portfolio management model based on four Project Management Institute (PMI, 2007); (2) Suggesting a framework for developing breakthrough strategies; and, (3) Offering advice for aspiring leaders on becoming C-level executives.
Part One: A Comprehensive Strategic Portfolio Management Model
Strategic versus Tactical Portfolios
From a C-level executive perspective, the PMI Global Standard for Portfolio Management is the most important publication to come from PMI in the last decade (PMI, 2006).
The original project charter (PMI, 2003) that provided guidance to the working group developing the Standard identified two types of portfolio management: (1) tactical, and (2) strategic:
- Tactical portfolio management involves span-of-control supervision, very similar to program management but of unrelated projects.
- Strategic portfolio management, on the other hand, is conducted at a much higher level within the organization, where those involved are deciding if the projects and programs selected for execution align with the organization's strategies. Is the organization doing the right projects, given its strategy?
Organizational Maturity Is Essential
Developing breakthrough strategies requires a disciplined, mature organization. The strategic portfolio management model outlined in Exhibit 1 is built around three PMI standards and one model, the Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3®). Immature, undisciplined enterprises are unlikely to achieve successful breakthroughs. (See Enron example discussed later in this paper). Exhibit 1 presents a model the author has found useful in describing the closed-loop nature of strategic portfolio management to senior executives. The model highlights the role PMI plays in fostering a uniform environment and common nomenclature across the enterprise, including the following:
- Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM3®)
- The Standard for Portfolio Management
- The Standard for Program Management
- A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).
Exhibit 1. A Comprehensive Strategic Portfolio Management Model
Using this model as a roadmap in developing breakthrough strategies, the executive leadership team (ELT) begins by considering the strategic portfolio objectives it wants to achieve, shown on the left side of Exhibit 1.
Strategic Portfolio Objectives Are Unique: Whether public or private, profit or nonprofit, each enterprise crafts its own unique list of strategic portfolio objectives. Breakthrough strategies are then aligned with these objectives.
Portfolio Venues: This is where the strategic intent of the ELT is carried out. The list of venues in Exhibit 1 is not all-inclusive; venues vary widely according to the type of enterprise.
Portfolio Management—Closing the Loop: The heart of the Comprehensive Strategic Portfolio Management Model is the three PMI standards plus OPM3®. Enterprise maturity is arguably the single most important factor in achieving strategic breakthroughs. These standards are increasingly providing a globally recognized common framework, transcending individual enterprises. The standards facilitate collaboration in a flat world (Friedman, 2007.
Portfolio Disciplines: What is often overlooked, as shown on the right side of the Exhibit 1, is the multiplicity of disciplines required for successful strategic portfolio management. In addition to the disciplines listed, operations management is critical to the success of strategic initiatives. Unless the organization is completely projectized (where all the assets are owned by the project or program manager), the capacity of ongoing operations often becomes a critical success factor in achieving strategic objectives.
As will be shown later in the paper, there is a wide difference in the ability of enterprises to execute their strategic objectives. The author suggests that this might be called “Strategic Throughput.” Another way of describing this measure is the percent of strategy executed according to plan (Cabanis-Brewin, 2006).
Cross-Company Portfolio Management Process Relationships
The strategic domain covered in this paper is depicted in the top band shown in Exhibit 2. This is where the executive leadership team develops the enterprise vision, mission, strategic plan, strategic objectives and portfolio governance guidance.
Exhibit 2. Cross-Company Portfolio Management Process Relationships
(See Figure 1-4 in the PMI Standard for Portfolio Management .)
It is the author's view that strategic portfolio management includes operations management, as illustrated in the formula at the bottom left of Exhibit 2: Strategic Portfolio Management = Executive Management * Portfolio Management * Project and Program Management * Operations Management.
Strategic initiatives must take into account their potential impact on ongoing operations, since frequently it is the capacity constraints and tolerance for change in operations in the functional organizations that limit strategic execution.
Surprise! Strategic Performance Varies Widely
Not surprisingly, as shown in Exhibits 3 and 4, there is a wide variation in the strategic alignment of projects between low-performing and high-performing organizations (39% versus 86%). Low performers were 50% less likely to execute strategy according to plan (33% versus 83%). Similarly, there is a wide range of project performance as measured by optimum resource allocation and schedule and budget performance. These charts are the result of a survey conducted in November 2005, from a broad spectrum of 87 leading companies (Cabanis-Brewin, 2006).
Exhibit 3. Strategic Performance
Exhibit 4. Program and Project Performance
Integrating Theory with Reality
The Cabanis-Brewin research findings discovered that only 33% of low-performing companies were executing their strategy according to plan, as compared to high performers who achieved 83%. Applying the formula developed earlier in the paper, Exhibit 5 mathematically suggests the incredibly high maturity, in four distinct domains, necessary to be high performers. While this formula is overly simplistic, it illustrates the interdependence of capabilities in achieving strategic throughput: (1) a low score in executive management might indicate an inability to achieve consensus and support within the ELT; (2) a low score in portfolio management may indicate an inability to implement and maintain a closed-loop feedback system; (3) a low score in program and project management might be caused by an inability to objectively measure performance using earned value; and (4) a low score in operations management could indicate conditions ranging from a lack of capacity to operational agendas conflicting with strategic direction.
Exhibit 5. A Rough-Cut Methodology for Assessing Readiness to Achieve Strategic Initiatives
Part Two: A Framework for Developing Breakthrough Strategies
Characteristics of a Strong Enterprise
High-performing enterprises generally have a common set of characteristics (Davidson, 2004). The best place to start building an enterprise is in the ELT. Investment in an enterprise leadership framework starts by focusing the company's ELT on becoming a council that functions to drive the organization toward its highest and best state. It is no small feat to shift the focus of a senior executive team from its narrow responsibilities to the best interest of the overall enterprise. From strong CEO leadership and a cohesive senior leadership team, a series of other enterprise characteristics follow. A strong enterprise should exhibit the following characteristics:
- Common strategic principles; programs, and in the ultimate form, a single core strategy
- A common leadership framework, with a centralized approach to leadership development
- A common management philosophy and common policies and practices (see Exhibit 1)
- A common culture
- Integrated infrastructure and systems
- Integrated processes
- Common targets and obsessions.
Business Engineering: Key to Developing Breakthrough Strategies
Corporate and market transformation requires a critical mass of design and engineering effort. Big breakthroughs, those that transform firms and markets, are not discrete point innovations. Firms that tend to succeed at this game do not exhibit the same bias for action often associated with excellent companies. Entrepreneurial firms tend to fire frequently on all cylinders and in all directions. Breakthrough companies design highly architected plans and models for business transformation. They then act in a highly focused and systematic fashion to implement their designs. For a comprehensive discussion with case study illustrations, see Davidson, 2004.
Step One: Cessation of Random Activity
The first step in the breakthrough cycle may therefore be the cessation of random activity to allow for focused planning, preparation and pursuit of a new strategy. This first step can be summarized as, “Don't just do something, sit there!” Cease non-essential activity and focus on core strategy issues for a period of time. The goal of any breakthrough exercise is to initiate a new success cycle. The key ingredients for that success cycle follow:
- A highly articulated and architected strategy that delivers powerful customer and competitive advantages in the market place
- An organization that is aligned and committed to the breakthrough strategy
- Structured, systematic, massive and speedy execution of the game plan.
Best practices in each of these areas can assist aspiring companies in the pursuit of their strategic objectives. Most firms go through a success cycle only once; therefore, this is one area where it is particularly wise to look to other organizations for lessons that can help make the process more efficient and effective. This paper builds on the work of Dr. Bill Davidson  and the author at (YRC) Yellow Roadway Corporation (Garfein & Witty, 2004). For five years running, YRC has been number one in its category on the Fortune Magazine list of most admired companies.
Second: Focus on a Common Challenge
The second step involves the ELT focusing its attention on a common challenge, and this is no small achievement given the day-to-day demands on its time. It may take some time to focus the minds of the ELT; participants in the process will undoubtedly conclude that they have more important and pressing things to do. Local, tactical agendas will threaten the emerging strategy cycle at every turn.
It may take some effort to truly engage the ELT in the strategy cycle. Surveys of the assumptions and concerns of individual executives, with group processing of conclusions, gaps and areas to be addressed, can be helpful. Team building and coaching work can also be appropriate and effective. One-on-one meetings with the CEO to engage key executives are invaluable. Somewhere in this process, a fundamental question must be answered: “Can this team come together to shape, launch and execute an enterprise strategy?”
During this time it is essential to freeze discretionary activities, especially executive hiring, acquisitions, alliances and major resource-allocation decisions. Inaction is even more impressive and powerful when the organization is facing an impending crisis. Soon enough, extraordinary, focused energy will be unleashed, and the action factor within the organization will rise dramatically. Certainly the new action will be much more precise, synchronized, and powerful.
This phase presents an opportunity to collect, synthesize and focus market knowledge and self-knowledge. It provides an opportunity to think, to debate and to explore scenarios and options. It needs both first-rate analytical work and the best business acumen to generate, screen and develop strategy options, elements and linkages.
Third: Deliver an Integrated Strategy with Actionable Initiatives
Whatever process is used, the outcome of the process must be a single, integrated strategy, with specific, actionable initiatives, supported by the unwavering commitment of the senior team. That is the only essential deliverable at this point. The key words here are single, integrated, actionable and commitment, which can be summarized in one word: Focus.
The new strategy often (but not always) includes a specific, engineered value proposition, a tightly defined target market and other explicit strategy elements. Formal screens may be applied to determine whether the strategy meets acceptable competitive feasibility, resource realities, financial justification and implementation risk standards. This improves the quality of the strategy, reduces risk and accelerates the timeline. Nonetheless, many of the breakthrough companies we (Davidson, 2004) observed did not utilize a full-scale strategy process or format. Many used pilots and limited launches to test, validate and refine their breakthrough strategies before making a complete commitment to the new plan. After they were convinced of the potential and power of the new model, they moved aggressively to implement the new strategy.
Three Examples of Strategic Portfolio Breakthroughs and One Example of Failure
Breakthroughs in strategic portfolio management often involve big bets, as illustrated by the following four examples. What if Boeing continued to build conventional aircraft instead of embracing composite structures? (Boeing claims the 787 will be at least 20% more fuel-efficient than current competing aircraft) What if Apple had not decided to switch from the Motorola to the Intel chip? What if the designers of the Apache had not risked building a lightweight helicopter that other companies thought was impossible to build and still meet survivability requirements? What if Enron had taken a disciplined approach toward assessing the risk in their strategic portfolio and had a closed-loop portfolio management capability visible to the entire ELT?
Boeing 787 Dreamliner: Boeing developed a breakthrough composite airframe coupled with detail design responsibility that has been delegated to major subcontractors. These Boeing breakthroughs brought greater fuel efficiency, improved cabin comfort and more direct flights (as opposed to hub and spoke multiple leg travel). As of December 2007, Boeing has booked 762 firm orders, has 76 pending, for a total of 838 aircraft.
Apple: In 2004 Apple changed from the Motorola to Intel chip and today runs Microsoft Windows in addition to Apple's own operating system. Apple is an industry leader with the iPod, iTunes and now the iPhone. And now it has an alliance with Starbucks; filling your iPod with music much the same as Starbuck fills your coffee cup.
Apache Helicopter: They bet the company that they could build a light-weight, survivable helicopter meeting the Army requirements. (At that time, in 1972, the company was part of the Howard Hughes empire.) Here, survivability was the key: the helicopter rotor blades had to survive a 23mm direct hit and keep flying. Brilliant engineering found a way to make a small rotor blade survivable, thus resulting in a much lighter weight blade and a much lighter helicopter, and therefore a better performing aircraft than the competition (Bell Helicopter).
Enron: Enron was a cowboy culture incapable of inaction. Decisions were made without due consideration or process. Enron was not willing to do the hard work of crafting a grounded strategy before firing their six-shooters (Davidson, 2004). As was later discovered, many of Enron's recorded assets and profits were inflated, or even wholly fraudulent and nonexistent. Debts and losses were put into entities formed “offshore” that were not included in the company's financial statements, and other sophisticated and arcane financial transactions between Enron and related companies were used to take unprofitable entities off the company's books (Wikipedia,).
Breakthrough Attitudes and Approaches
Successful strategic breakthrough companies hold a set of attitudes and approaches in common. These core characteristics ultimately fall into two key categories—strategic philosophy and principles, and leadership philosophy and practices. We will begin by focusing first on the strategic elements that are common foundations for breakthrough. The path to breakthrough begins with the following eight strategic principles. (When reading this list, overlay these principles on the Boeing 787, Apple innovation, Apache helicopter, and Enron meltdown as described earlier, or apply these principles to other strategic initiatives you are familiar with.)
- Pursue outrageous objectives. Outrageous goals force us to consider alternative processes and technology platforms and thus foster breakthrough innovations (iPhone, B787, Apache).
- Focus on the future (838 orders for the B787 through 2014).
- Place primary emphasis on customer knowledge, care and relationships and secondary emphasis on cost reduction.
- Emphasize process innovation over improvement of existing activities.
- Use advanced technology to drive operating excellence.
- Focus on a few critical core initiatives that span the entire enterprise.
- Use human resources in new, creative ways with structured empowerment.
- Identify and exploit new growth opportunities exposed by breakthroughs.
Envisioning a Preferred Future State
Once the ELT has articulated the breakthrough strategy (see Exhibit 6), the next step is to define the core initiatives designed to take the enterprise from its current business state to a preferred future state (PFS).(See Exhibit 7.) It is often the case that a breakthrough platform is required as a foundation to the PFS, as illustrated in the B787-composite, Apple-Intel, and the Apache light-weight design examples described earlier. The PFS may include any combination of new products, new business models, new markets, new channels and new businesses.
Exhibit7. Core Enterprise Initiatives—a summary diagram of the preferred future state of the enterprise.
Exhibit 6. Strategy Articulation Example—the first step in identifying the programs, projects, tasks and resources.
Part Three: Advice on Becoming a C-Level Executive
You Still Have to Run the Railroad
Too often when strategic initiatives are generated by the ELT, insufficient attention is given to the burden placed on the enterprise. The enterprise still has to execute its day-to-day operational responsibilities. As the initiatives are broken into programs, projects and, finally, tasks and line managers see the impact of the additional workload, their response frequently is, “You want me to do what—by when?!” Portfolio managers are concerned with the program and project portfolio; as contrasted to the CEO, the chief strategy officer and the strategic portfolio manager positions that all take a more holistic view of the entire enterprise which includes ongoing operations.
Chief Strategy Officer
Strategic portfolio management is rapidly evolving. In October 2007 the Harvard Business Review published an article titled “The Chief Strategy Officer.” Because top management spends less than three hours a month, on average, discussing strategy issues, a new executive position has appeared on the horizon: the chief strategy officer (CSO). The CSO at times functions as a sort of “mini CEO,” someone who must see the issues confronting the company from as broad a perspective as the chief executive does. Most of the top-strategy executives split their time almost evenly between strategy formulation and execution (Breene, Nunes, & Shill, 2007). Finding someone with the skills and experience needed to develop strategy, translate it for people across functions and business units, and drive organizational change is not easy. See the Appendix for a list of CSO characteristics.
Exhibit 6. Strategic Initiatives Must Consider Ongoing Operations as Part of the Overall Strategic Portfolio.
[Based on Figure 1-2, An Organizational Context of Portfolio Management, Portfolio Standard, PMI, 2006]
Chief Strategy Officer: There is a new trend wherein CEOs are formally handing the reins of strategy execution to individuals known by a variety of titles but with increasing frequency as “chief strategy officers” (CSO) (Breene, Nunes, & Shill, 2007). See Appendix for a list of characteristics of a CSO.
Strategic Portfolio Manager: This is a title coined by the author to describe a manager whose charter includes not only the project portfolio but also the operations side of the organization; in other words, a strategic portfolio manager's purview is the entire enterprise, including operations, projects, programs, capital expenditures, direct and indirect costs—in short, everything the enterprise spends money on (see Exhibit 8).
Portfolio Manager: A portfolio manager, as defined in the PMI Portfolio Standard (2006), is responsible for programs and projects. This role is not as broad as that of a strategic portfolio manager.
Roles of the Portfolio Manager and the Strategic Portfolio Manager
As defined earlier, the difference between these two positions is the addition of ongoing operations under the charter of the strategic portfolio manager (Davidson, 2004).
- Methodologies. Establishes and maintains a framework and methodology for portfolio management within the organization.
- Processes. Establishes and maintains relevant portfolio management processes, including, for example, risk management and change management.
- Coordination. Plays a key role in project selection, prioritization and balancing, making sure there is a balance of components and that the components align with strategic goals and organizational priorities.
- Updating. Continuously reviews, updates and optimizes the portfolio, ensuring ongoing compliance with evolving organizational strategies, goals and objectives.
- Assessment. Provides key stakeholders with timely assessment of portfolio and component selection, prioritization and performance, as well as early identification of (and intervention into) portfolio-level issues and risks that are impacting performance.
- Monitoring. Measures and monitors the value to the organization through key performance indicators, such as return on investment (ROI), net present value (NPV), payback period (PP), meeting legal and regulatory requirements, achieving the educational needs of current or future students, etc.
- Consistency. Ensures timely and consistent communication to the stakeholders on progress, impacts and changes associated with the management of the portfolio, to support executive decision-making.
- Participation. Participates in program and project reviews to reflect senior level support, leadership and involvement in important matters.
- Ethics. Acts professionally by adhering to a code of conduct in order to maintain the integrity of the discipline.
Questions for the Executive Leadership Team: Do You Have What It Takes?
Any team, with the right leadership, can achieve breakthrough objectives. The question really is not so much the quality of the individuals in the team; rather, it is their ability to work together as a team. The larger and more important question, however, is the following: Does senior leadership have the characteristics and qualities essential to ensure success? Here are questions to help you determine whether your leadership has what it takes:
- Can you make the painstaking effort to develop a highly articulated master plan for your strategy (as briefly described earlier for the Dreamliner, Apple, and the Apache)?
- Can you align the senior team to fully support that strategy?
- Can you stay focused on and committed to the same core strategic program for a minimum of three to five years? For the rest of your career?
- Can you give the same speech hundreds of times?
- Can you establish and manage 50 to 100 personal contracts with key executives who will deliver the key components of the strategy?
- Will you intervene when necessary to remove roadblocks and obstacles to breakthrough?
- Would you, if necessary, remove your closest colleagues from their positions if they became the principal barrier to successful execution of the breakthrough strategy?
- Can you balance day-to-day demands and distractions with your commitment to the breakthrough program?
- Can you ensure that the financial and organizational resources necessary to deliver breakthrough will be available as needed?
- Will you and your team monitor every gate in every series circuit in the organization to identify and address breakdowns?
- Strategic portfolio management is a rapidly emerging discipline encompassing everything the enterprise undertakes, including ongoing operations.
- Strategic throughput is directly proportional to the effectiveness of Executive Management, Portfolio Management, Program and Project Management, and Operations Management (SPM = EM*PM*P&PM*OM). Weakness in any of the four elements on the right side of the equation diminishes SPM throughput.
- There are enormous opportunities in most enterprises, whether public or private, for profit or nonprofit, and governmental to improve strategic throughput. Even a few percentage points improvement in strategic throughput can significantly improve enterprise performance.
- There are emerging new opportunities where strategy becomes an integral part of portfolio management and when portfolio management is strategically linked to operations. The opportunities are in developing educational materials around strategic portfolio management, new consulting initiatives, and new career advancement paths.
Breene, R. T. S, Nunes, P. F., & Shill, W. E. (October 2007). The chief strategy officer. Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School Publishing.
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Davidson, B. (2004). Breakthrough: How great companies set outrageous objectives and achieve them. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Friedman, T. (2007. The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Appendix: Characteristic of a CSO
An important new path to becoming a C-level executive is the emerging position of chief strategy officer. According to Breene, Nunes, and Shill (2007), a good CSO candidate should have the following characteristics:
- •Deeply trusted by the CEO. CSOs are often given carte blanche to tackle companywide challenges and seize new business opportunities, so there must be a strong bond of trust between the strategy chief and the CEO. A long professional and personal history between them isn't absolutely necessary—but it helps.
- •A master of multitasking. Our survey revealed that CSOs are responsible for upward of ten major business functions and activities, as diverse and demanding as M&A, competitive analysis and market research, and long-range planning. CSOs therefore must be capable of switching between environments and activities without losing speed.
- •A jack of all trades. Less than one-fifth of our survey respondents spent the bulk of their careers (pre-CSO) on strategic planning. Most reported significant line-management and functional experience in disparate areas, including technology management, marketing and operations.
- •A star player. Most CSOs can point to impressive business results earlier in their careers. They usually view the strategy role as a launching pad, not a landing pad.
- •A doer, not just a thinker. CSOs split their time almost evenly between strategy development and execution, but their bias is toward the latter. “Every company already has a strategy,” says Krishnan Rajagopalan, of Heidrick & Struggles. “CEOs are looking for a leader who can help implement it, not just refine it.”
- •The guardian of horizon two. Senior teams generally have a good handle on short- and long-term issues. The medium term, that period from one to four years out, can fall through the cracks, however. CSOs must be able to refocus the organization's attention on horizon two, the critical period for strategy execution.
- •An influencer, not a dictator. Strategy chiefs don't usually accomplish their goals by pulling rank. They sway others with their deep industry knowledge, their connections throughout the organization and their ability to communicate effectively at all levels of the company.
- •Comfortable with ambiguity. All executives today must exhibit this trait, but it's especially true for CSOs, whose actions typically won't pay off for years. The role tends to evolve rapidly, as circumstances dictate, requiring an extraordinary ability to embrace an uncertain future.
- •Objective. Given their wide charter, CSOs have to be perceived as objective. An openly partisan CSO, or one who lets emotions or the strength of others' personalities cloud his or her vision, is sure to fail.
© 2008, Steve Garfein
Originally published as a part of 2008 PMI Asia Pacific Global Congress Proceedings, Sydney, Australia