Why Every Agency Needs a Chief Management Officer

The top leader can't do it all in a mere 168-hour week.

Forty years ago, Henry Mintzberg, of McGill University, asked the simple question: “What do managers do?”

To Mintzberg managers were not just corporate CEOs but also “vice presidents, bishops, foremen, hockey coaches and prime ministers”—people with “formal authority” for some kind of “organizational unit.”

Mintzberg was looking for what these people did that was “common to the work of all managers.” From his research, he identified 10 managerial “roles” or “behaviors.”

Three interpersonal roles:

  • Figurehead
  • Leader
  • Liaison

Three informational roles:

  • Monitor
  • Disseminator
  • Spokesperson

Four decisional roles:

  • Entrepreneur
  • Disturbance handler
  • Resource allocator
  • Negotiator

Mintzberg’s list is rather short, but his 10 roles do cover a diverse range of responsibilities. Indeed, the list is intimidating. How could any human do a halfway credible job on all 10 roles in a mere 168-hour week?

Consider, for example, your average elected public executive: mayor, county executive, governor, or president. Yes: It takes a lot of determination to get yourself elected to one of these executive jobs. Every day, the most winning candidates figure out how to handle multiple responsibilities. If they don’t, they lose.

Still, once they are sworn in, their obligations jump in complexity. A candidate has one very specific, very narrow task: get elected. As chief executive, however, the former candidate’s responsibilities are more complicated. And although a Cabinet sec-retary or department head has a narrower portfolio, his or her responsibilities are still quite complex.

Consider the roles of figurehead, liaison, spokesperson, disturbance handler and negotiator. These five roles include internal responsibilities. But for a public executive (elected or appointed), they also have an external component that is more demanding than for most private sector CEOs.

As the obvious figurehead, the public executive personifies the government or agency to the world. He or she is its definitive spokesperson.

If a disturbance is small and internal, a subordinate manager can handle it. But if the disturbance is significant enough, or if it involves people outside the government, the public executive may need to get personally involved. The same applies to negotiations with people or groups outside of the executive branch.

A public executive who delegates to subordinates any of these five roles—figurehead, liaison, spokesperson, disturbance handler, or negotiator—may quickly antagonize key stakeholders. Unfortunately, handling these five roles for situations primarily involving people outside of the executive branch can consume all of any public executive’s time.

If so, what happens when these five roles also involve insiders? And what happens when the role is leader, monitor, disseminator, entrepreneur, or resource allocator? How much time is left for these responsibilities? Often, not much. All too often, none.

Yet, the public executive is supposed to be the (internal) leader of the jurisdiction or agency, establishing purposes, motivating employees, authorizing projects, and encouraging initiatives to better achieve key public purposes. But how much time does the executive have for this? After all, handling internal disturbances and allocating resources can quickly jump to the top of the must-do-today pile.

Thus every public executive—appointed or elected—needs a chief management officer, chief operating officer, chief performance officer. I don’t care what the title is. I do care, however, that this person is responsible for ensuring that the jurisdiction or agency is operating competently—for keeping everyone focused on achieving the chief executive’s purposes. This person is responsible for the operational roles to which the top executive cannot devote sufficient attention. All governors need a chief operating officer. All mayors need a chief administrative officer. All Cabinet secretaries need a chief performance officer.

The president, governor, mayor, or agency head also has responsibility for setting policy—for establishing macro purposes. Yet, too often, these executives focus exclusively on policy. And for some mysterious reason (and despite all the evidence to the contrary), they believe their brilliant policies are self-implementing.

The chief operating officer’s job is to make the policies work. Thus this person needs more than a title. He or she needs an official, public delegation of authority. The elected or appointed executive needs to say, as Mayor Joe Curtatone of Somerville, Massachusetts, often says about his chief performance officer: “My director of SomerStat speaks for me.” 

Robert D. Behn, a lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, chairs the executive education program Driving Government Performance: Leadership Strategies that Produce Results. His book, The PerformanceStat Potential, was recently published by Brookings.

Copyright 2015 Robert D. Behn

(Image via ConstantinosZ/