Corporate-wide support systems are essential from the CEO’s perspective, yet they rarely get the kind of attention they deserve. In most organizations there are existing systems in place and it’s tempting for the CEO to leave well enough alone. This “hands-off” approach, however, isn’t always a smart strategy because support systems have a dual function that must be taken into consideration.
The Interdependent Nature of Support Services
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In most organizations, support services are multifaceted. In finance, for example, corporate support provides information to the CEO – forecasting, reporting, sometimes strategic planning support, P&L statements, and so on – that are important for understanding the corporate position and its progress against the attainment of strategic goals. Yet this information relies on input from other parts of the organization and cannot be provided without collaboration from others. Compiling budget results for the quarter for example, requires gathering information from a variety of departments. To a larger or lesser extent all corporate support functions rely on others in the organization to provide this corporate support which is focused towards the CEO and the Board. So while this output is important, it does come at a cost in terms of time and energy from other parts of the organization.
Competing and Conflicting Goals
But there’s a second important focus of support services, which involves work across the organization. HR for example, supports the CEO and the Board, but also needs to have systems in place to support managers in their work. In HR, for example, this might mean help drafting a position description or defining suitable interview questions. This work is intended to create specialization and centres of expertise that will provide advice, services, or other tools to support managers in their work, so they can focus on their own value-added work.
Unfortunately, the distinction between corporate work and support work is fuzzy at best and often, decisions have negative implications for others in the organization. While both of these dimensions (corporate support and managerial support) are important, they are often competing and there is too much emphasis on the internal upward focus and not enough on how these systems can help managers do their work.
Avoiding Counterproductive Support
In every organization, managers need a variety of things to be successful. To the extent that an organization can create centralized support services, to support the work of managers, this is a good thing. But expectations need to be realistic because some of the resources dedicated to these centralized functions are directed towards supporting the organization itself.
It’s often the case that an idea for a new system that will improve a process in one department actually creates more work for another department. Managers often find that efforts to streamline or improve processes are simply nothing more than a transfer of work to them.
It’s the CEO’s responsibility to make the trade-offs and establish the right balance for the work of support services, whether it’s Finance, HR or another department. Finding the right balance between corporate-led initiatives that support the organization and cross-functional support services that provide training, guidance and support to managers helps everyone at all levels work more effectively.
Throughout this series, we have examined the role of the CEO: six key functions as they relate to leading an efficient, effective, high-performing organization. As the leader, most senior manager, and public face of the organization, the CEO has the most complex role. As primary link between the organization, the Board and external stakeholders, the CEO often deals with competing demands and conflicting goals. By creating space for the six key functions outlined in this series, the CEO can create a capable, committed work force, and position the organization for success.