Getting Things Done Requires More Than Being the Boss

 

Takeaway

  • The challenge in coordinating with other departments is overcoming opposition and gaining acceptance
  • Coordinating before big meetings can help avoid unneeded debate
  • Coordination can also build stronger professional relationships

As a manager, you just directed your team to take an action, knowing other executives have to sign off before the action occurs. The process to make this happen is called coordination — providing information, answering questions and seeking concurrence — in short, working with key people who influence decisions. Successful coordination avoids cantankerous, counter-productive debate, and it can save a plan from outright failure.

Whether in the private or public sector, coordination is an important art to master. While I use corporate examples, they apply equally to the public sector. In our military, there are cadres of staff officers who do this work, and the process there is called “staffing.”

Coordination is easy to describe with examples: 1) between corporate departments; 2) with board members and board committees; and 3) between the heads of major corporate groups and divisions.

Coordination Between Corporate Departments

When coordinating at the corporate level, you reach out to other departments, request comments and negotiate approval. The challenge is to overcome opposition and gain acceptance. You won’t win them all. If not, get a written explanation from the dissenter. Present the objections to the boss for a decision on how to proceed.

The late chairman of CIGNA, Bob Kilpatrick, once called me into his office and said that at all cost I must succeed in acquiring a UK insurer, Crusader PLC. Crusader was for sale by its owner, and there were several other interested buyers. I had already been given the assignment but not in those stark terms.

There were many issues to resolve, including legal, financial, regulatory, accounting, actuarial and marketing. I summarized the deal terms based on the information on hand, requested additional information from the relevant CIGNA department heads and advised that replies were due within one week. I added that the chairman urgently wanted the deal done.

At week’s end I had all the answers except from the corporate treasurer, but my management, knowing of the one omission, said, “Go.” Three weeks and four round trips between Philadelphia and London later, we made the deal. The chairman called to congratulate me. The CIGNA treasurer called to criticize me for not waiting for his reply. Gentle reader, you can imagine my response.

The second example shows how coordination with members of a board before a board meeting can help avoid problems.

Coordination With Board Members and Committees

Earlier in my career at CIGNA, I was responsible for most corporate functions. In my portfolio was the provision of food service to the several thousand employees in Philadelphia who enjoyed a heavily subsidized lunch. Financial analysis showed that we were losing money, which could be offset by charging users an additional $2.50 weekly. This looked like a prudent approach. The meal was still a great deal.

In preparation for the board meeting to discuss this and other issues, I sent a note to the board members advising them of my plan. The board chairman called me into his office. He asked me if I understood the implications of charging several thousand employees an additional $2.50 weekly. He told me that most employees taking advantage of the subsidized luncheons were junior clerks who handled the administration of insurance policies. He added that the employees would seek a pay raise which, even if small, would cost CIGNA far more than the small losses we would incur by maintaining the existing price.

The chairman was right. Coordination before the board meeting avoided unneeded debate, and I advised the board of the action we now planned to take, namely to eat the loss and not face increasing salaries. This was accepted unanimously. Coordination paid off.

Coordination Between the Heads of Major Groups and Divisions

I was promoted at CIGNA and become chief of staff of the international division. I discovered that the head of systems and the head of the international division were both brilliant, opinionated and stubborn men. In most cases they agreed on issues, but had a hard time communicating face-to-face. I became their link. I served as the “staff intermediary,” a true coordinator, with no agenda of my own but to be an honest broker between them. I was close to both and earned their trust. Over time, this worked, and there developed a close and productive professional relationship between them. Even on the personal level, things got better.

Coordination works. You can take these examples and apply the techniques. Whether you toil in a line or staff position, if you show management you can coordinate projects of complexity and get results that benefit the company, you will have the opportunity to move to a top position.

Disclaimer

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

Ernest Auerbach

Formerly with Xerox, CIGNA, New York LIfe, AIG and Anderson Consulting, Retired Executive

Ernest Auerbach is a retired corporate general manager who held senior positions in the U.S. and overseas at Xerox, CIGNA, New York Life Insurance...

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