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Advice for the Czar: Making the most of your first ‘taskforce’ assignment

As President Obama appoints an Ebola ‘czar’, Senior Lecturer and former Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer tells you how to set yourself up for success when you’re tipped to lead a task force tackling an important problem.

Kevin Sharer
Last week, President Obama appointed Ron Klain as the Ebola “czar” for the United States to coordinate all the US government’s actions in dealing with the growing, so far ill-managed, and potentially catastrophic Ebola emergency. By all reports Mr. Klain is a smart, experienced and very capable crisis manager who will call on all his experience and more to handle this worldwide, complex, fast-paced, and multifaceted challenge.

So, how is this situation relevant to HBS students who are studying hard and gaining field experience, preparing to be general managers? It seems to me that by reflecting on Mr. Klain’s challenges and actions, we can learn about a type of situation you will almost certainly experience, directly or indirectly, quite early in your career. How you perform in that situation could be one of your early defining moments.

What is that situation? The Task Force. You, like Mr. Klain, find yourself the leader (or, perhaps a key member) of a team charged with addressing a very high-priority, difficult, multifaceted task. Top management has determined that the in-place systems, processes and people are not going to get the job done. The situation is unstructured in virtually every way when you show up.

So, let’s think about Mr. Klain’s choices as he begins his work on the Ebola “Task Force.” What can we learn from this high-pressure “case”? While his challenge is almost certainly much more complex than anything you will encounter in business, the general approaches and elements are similar.
Two frameworks come to my mind that we might use to shape our thinking and planning. The first, and most common approach is task related: list, assign, support and monitor all the tasks that need to occur to accomplish the goal.
The second framework, the one I favor in situations like this, is phase-of-the-project defined. This framework addresses the organizational and political pressures by allowing you to expressly address the fact that tasks vary in detail and importance by phase, and if you do not succeed in the first phases you will most likely not succeed overall. A useful way to think about the phases is to organize your thinking, plans, and action around four periods: (1) taking charge, (2) gaining credibility, (3) sustaining progress, and (4) finishing. Books have been written about the subject, so we will be able to just cover the highlights here. I encourage you, though, to think deeply about this situation: you will be there before you know it.

Taking Charge: The way you begin will make or break you.
Come in as a know-it-all, “you folks have really screwed up”, order-barking, non-listening type and it is over. So as part of the triage process, listen and learn! What are the facts? What do knowledgeable people on the front lines think? What is happening now? What is the current plan? Who are the stakeholders? What do the people you work for want in terms of results, information, and their own participation?
As you go through this process, you will begin to decide who you can count on, where the immediate gaps lie, who you need to recruit to help, how to organize the work, and what changes to make. Your approach and attitude will set the tone for the group. This is a vital element, by the way. Will you bring heat, fear, noise, and ever-changing priorities or will you inspire confidence, be resilient and steady, be approachable, and have a clear plan understood by all?
The end of the taking change phase should happen quickly. In Mr. Klain’s case my hunch is that he will have two to three weeks at most, and this phase could be shorter if events such as a growing number of Ebola cases emerge within the US.

Gaining Credibility: Keep your position and gain support with a clear plan focused on immediate needs, and visible progress in meeting those needs.
You will have set up a governance process that involves the key stakeholders achieving and sustaining a shared reality about the situation, the plan, and individual accountabilities in task and timeframe. This governance and implementation process will likely involve more high-frequency, routine, and ad hoc communication and action than you encountered upon arrival. Getting cadence right counts. Too short and no one has time to do the work, and too long and things can go off the rails.
Your bosses (and all the other bosses who control your resources) will understand the plan, support it, and see early progress. Finally, you will have replaced who you must and recruited a first rate team. No one can do it all, and if your mindset is that you are the central actor, you will stumble. You are the general manager.

Sustaining Momentum: Keep it moving.

This is an adjustment time from the first two phases as the situation evolves, people get into the rhythm of the work, the searing pressure you felt earlier hopefully subsides, and the cadence of communication and governance eases. However, things can still go wrong through complacency, declaring victory too early, loss of key team members, fatigue, and more. As the leader, you must be alert to these possibilities, be ever vigilant and keep standards high. Celebrating wins along the way is good and necessary but do not hoist any “mission accomplished” banners.

Finishing: Neglect it at your peril.
The last phase is more often than not skipped or, at best, done partially. In fact, it is your chance to learn and grow and it can ensure that the hard work of your team has lasting impact on your organization. Finishing means understanding and addressing in an enduring way the root causes underlying why we got here in the first place, documenting lessons learned, talking among the leadership group and wider audience about those learnings, and giving credit and thanks in an authentic and meaningful way to the people who consistently went above and beyond to get the job done.
My last thought goes to root cause analysis and taking action to address it. Dig very deep to decide at a fundamental level what happened and why. Organizations tend to take the easy way out and land on the proximate cause which is certainly in the mix but in my experience inevitably the true root cause is linked to decisions, behaviors, or attitudes much further up the causality chain. This is a subject for another day but worth pondering in the Ebola context too.

November 3, 2014
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