Business Transformation

Does your Organization have a “Chief Navigator”?

Even in stable times, business is messy.  And when firms restructure, “right-size,” or reinvent their corporate model, that mess can seem unmanageable.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

In many organizations, a leader steps up to collaborate across the enterprise and turn messy into mastered.  Holy sh&* into skillfully writ.  Chaos into calm.  He or she works seamlessly across divisional and functional lines, creating a shared vision in the midst of a major change, engaging key stakeholders and ensuring the team delivers.

Chief Navigator

It’s a role I call “chief navigator.”  Sometimes the Chief Operating Officer takes on that role.  Or the Chief Administrative Officer.  Or the CHRO, CFO, or a business unit lead.  “Traditional” titles don’t matter.  What does matter is the quality and capabilities of the leader.

Chief navigators balance science and art – blending the ability to define root causes, analyze data and build trust up, down and across the organization.  They typically have both left- and right-brain capabilities, combining a strong analytical mind and decisiveness with the ability to build relationships with a range of stakeholders.

Navigators can articulate their position on key issues while integrating (and appreciating) others’ points of view.  Being a good listener during conflict, combining an enterprise view with a keen eye for detail, connecting dots and resources across business lines and functions, demonstrating a profound sense of fairness and creative problem-solving  — all with an eye on maintaining fiscal responsibility and valuing key stakeholders  — are the foundation of the chief navigator’s tools.

Chief Navigators in action

I’ve been privileged to work with and learn from navigators throughout my career.  And it’s a role I played myself as Chief Administrative Officer at CBS Corporation and in other senior executive positions.

When might you need a chief navigator and how do they operate?  Let’s look at some examples:

IPOs – When a Fortune 500 company launched a large-scale IPO, the senior management team was challenged to rethink every aspect of the business and create an all-new delivery and operating structure.  Tight timelines, proactive positioning and seamless execution required flawless collaboration between Finance, HR, Labor, Sourcing, Facilities, Communications and other functions.  The head of the company’s M&A group served as chief navigator, building a cross-functional team, eliminating silos and integrating workstreams from start to finish.  He engaged the right resources to evaluate cost structures, build service models from scratch, source vendors, and untangle HR/labor issues along the way — designing  a right-sized model for the newly formed organization.  On time.  Exceeding expectations.  No surprises.

Mergers & Acquisitions — Overseeing a cultural integration while executing the financials of a large acquisition can be daunting. In fact, managing the integration/divestiture is just as important as getting the deal done. When a global, traditional corporation acquired a smaller technology firm, the CHRO served as chief navigator, integrating multiple business perspectives and ensuring the company was fiscally prudent while preserving cultural elements that were important to the acquired entity’s younger, diverse work force.  Norms and expectations from the two groups were quite different, so the navigator listened for synergies they could leverage; and sensitivities they needed to respect.  He oversaw the tone and content of all communications to facilitate a blended culture — using thoughtful messaging and creative ways to detail benefits, programs, support and resources to maximize the contributions of a new unified team. Quick execution. Maximized productivity. Smooth transition.

Work Force Reductions – When CBS determined the need for broad-based voluntary buyouts in 2019, I served as chief navigator, balancing corporate and employee needs. More than just an HR exercise, all functions had to pull together to reduce cost while retaining productivity, top talent and CBS’ reputation.  We needed a strategic, thoughtful plan.  Instead of the traditional “peanut butter” approach, I facilitated discussions across business units to ensure the offering addressed each area’s economic and work force needs.  We engaged HR, Benefits, Legal, Tax, Accounting, Treasury and Communications to shape and execute the plan, with regular check-ins to pivot and adjust when needed.  Well-received communication.  Reduction and cost targets met.  Reinvestment in critical CBS operations.

Business Process Reinvention – When CBS Corporation was formed in 2006 after the split with Viacom, the leadership team recognized the need for a central source for employee benefits.  The VP, Human Resources emerged as a chief navigator, engaging a cross-functional team to create a company-wide portal/intranet site.  The navigator didn’t stop there – she kept the team together, identifying additional ways the site could help employees and the company.  The benefits platform expanded over the years to become the communication hub for all things at CBS.  One-stop resource. Fostering collaboration. Bringing more value than expected.

Do you have a Chief Navigator?

As these examples show, chief navigators exist within and outside of traditional job descriptions.  When companies have complex challenges that cross business lines, tapping one of your leaders to navigate disruptions is a proven strategy.   And given the messy world in which we live, being proactive to identify such leaders – or bring them into your C-Suite – is time well spent.

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Steve Mirante
Steve Mirante was EVP and Chief Administrative Officer for CBS Corporation, building on senior leadership roles at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, Cigna and PWC. He has helped multiple firms navigate complex business challenges and emerge stronger than before. Steve Mirante is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn.