At its core, the word “independence” means being free of outside control or influence.
We celebrate independence from many things: from the oppressive control of people and governments, to simply becoming independent from our once protective or “controlling” environments. Every 4th of July, we in the United States celebrate our national independence from prior years of British control, and its declaration of that freedom in a charter that would define the very freedoms and liberties we in the US enjoy today. Most often, when we celebrate “independence,” whether it is as a nation or as individuals, we are celebrating a moment in time, or a phase when that independence is either declared, demonstrated or both.
But there is another type of independence we should also celebrate, i.e., the act of distancing oneself from the (isolated, blind, and often inappropriate) influence of another person or organization’s actions. It is more of a “state” that an organization exists within, and one that defines the boundaries of its existence, than it is a single event or moment in time. Such is the case with most corporate oversight and regulatory functions that have emerged in recent years.
As an aspiring young auditor over 20 years ago, I remember this type of independence being drilled into my head more than any other directive in my early career. It’s a principle that has shaped both external auditing as a discipline since its inception over a century ago, and one that has defined internal auditing now for decades. It is also a principle that today defines most common forms of regulatory and oversight functions, particularly when issues like safety and security are involved. But these functions, while sometimes viewed as oppressive in their own right, were initially set up to prevent inherent conflicts of interest that arise in the absence of “common sense” checks and balances.
While many would call these functions a “necessary evil,” their independence and objectivity gives us comfort that someone else is watching–someone who does not necessarily have an “axe to grind” or a “dog in the race.” And if positioned correctly, this independence can also be a powerful enabler for the business by providing outside and unfiltered information and perspectives that are not easily observed by day-to-day operating management. Learning how to create that balance is critical to any function performing in that type of advisory or oversight capacity.
Today, the role of the Corporate Performance Manager, or Chief Performance Officer (CPO) as some companies have positioned it, is one in which the concept of independence and objectivity is becoming increasingly critical. Just as auditors have had to weather the perception of being the “bad guy,” so it is as well for the CPO. In fact, many companies that have deferred making the decision to have a Corporate PM function, have done so to avoid creating another oppressive layer of control, and avoid the animosity that might get created between operating and corporate management. But it is these organizations who sacrifice a very significant benefit that a Corporate PM function can deliver. I would submit that it is not the presence of independent advisory or oversight functions that create these problems, but rather the way they are set up, chartered and managed that does so.
So how does this sense of “balance” get created?
Here are some common traits of successful Corporate Performance Management functions that have been able to use the principles of independence and objectivity in a way that enables more collaborative success, while providing the healthy oversight and control that is desired by the firm’s Board, Officers and Shareholders:
- Organizational Independence and Visibility- Just as most Audit functions have a corporate responsibility to the CEO and Board of Directors, so it is the case with most successful corporate PM organizations. By the very nature of their reporting relationship to the CEO (or equivalent), they eliminate the very conflict of interest with specific business functions that can compromise more integrated and synergistic solutions from occurring.
- Strategically Balanced– Their charter is driven by the Firm’s Balanced Scorecard, rather than limited subsets of operating metrics that may yield more limited operational successes at the expense of the more balanced set of business outcomes desired by shareholders
- Non-Threatening- While their ultimate customer is the CEO, they view operating executives as a key enabler of, and partners in, their collective success. They do this by addressing issues and performance gaps in a way that makes the operating unit become successful in the eyes of the Firm’s C-Suite and Board, rather than their own visible value add.
- Removing Barriers- One way they become viewed as genuine partners with operating management is that they use their corporate visibility and influence to break down barriers (like corporate politics, access to information, and cultural roadblocks) and unlock value that has often eluded operating management.
- Inclusive and collaborative– Good PM functions are inclusive, not only with respect to their approach, but also in their delivery tactics. They often staff their departments with people from the operating units themselves (using short term and rotational assignments), increasing their operating credibility and ultimately developing real PM champions across the business.
- Facilitative– These functions are far more facilitative in their approach, rarely performing direct roles in developing conclusions and implementation. While results are often the same as those they might have developed themselves, playing a background role and “leading” the operating staff to the right answers ultimately strengthens operating ownership for the conclusions and changes that ultimately emerge.
- Share the Joy– Good PM organizations are often generous in giving credit for operating changes directly to operating executives. While they are successful at tracking corporate value delivered by the PM process, the credit for the implemented changes is often given directly to those who implement it.
The "bad cop" perception that is often ascribed to corporate oversight functions will never get eliminated completely, and will continue to be a factor as Corporate PM groups proliferate across the industry. By its very nature, there will always be times where their responsibility to the CEO and Board will result in the development of recommendations or the presentation of information that benefits the collective whole, rather than the specific interests of a particular business unit. But more often than not, the type of synergistic value we are looking for can make heroes out of operating executives while still benefiting the collective Enterprise.
So on this Independence Day, let’s remember that we can still preserve the independence and objectivity our profession requires, while being a strong force that liberates and frees our operating executives to reach their goals and ultimate potential.