Throughout the summer and fall of 2020, a senior executive of one of the largest computer resellers in the nation found himself in near constant communication with a single customer: the Mississippi Department of Education. The executive recalled, “[The chief information officer of the MDE] was the first person I talked to in the morning, the last person I talked to at night. From 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., we’re having conversations.”
The frequency of those conversations was atypical of communications between senior leaders at the MDE and a vendor. The two leaders discussed nearly every detail of the project: the exact time that a shipment of computing devices would arrive at an area school, slight adjustments to the number of devices requested by a single school district, and how to respond when shipments were delayed.
Why were these two C-suite leaders — one responsible for technological operations for hundreds of thousands of students across the state of Mississippi, and the other responsible for education sales at a company that generates billions of dollars of revenue a year — concerning themselves with the minutiae of truck routes, shipping delays and packing materials? Why didn’t they delegate these tasks to middle managers?
The answer lies in the urgency of Mississippi Connects’ mission to distribute nearly 400,000 “ready-to-learn” computing devices to students and teachers throughout the state, and to provide the infrastructure to support use of these devices, including professional development, software, curricula, broadband and other resources.
With an allocation of $200 million from the state’s CARES Act funds, the scope of the project was huge for K-12 public education. And the stakes for failure were incredibly high. Mississippi Connects was the first statewide one-to-one initiative of this size and scope. It employed a new procurement process that placed much of the responsibility for purchasing on the MDE, rather than individual districts. If the project failed, that model would be thrown out the window. Most importantly, with remote learning or periods of quarantine the norm because of the COVID-19 pandemic, getting ready-to-learn devices into the hands of teachers and students was also mission-critical for the MDE and the 148 local school districts it oversaw.
When the details are the vision
The deep and detailed involvement by senior leaders at the MDE and at the computer reseller on the Mississippi Connects project goes against the conventional wisdom that senior leaders should focus on the big picture and delegate the details to middle managers.
The case of Mississippi Connects suggests that there are some cases when it’s important for higher-ups to be involved in the day-to-day details of a project. The details of the Mississippi Connects project — whether the computing devices were delivered on time, whether the packing materials were sufficient for protecting the devices, whether arriving devices matched to the number and models requested by districts, and whether the devices were preconfigured correctly prior to delivery — were the vision. Failure on any of these details would mean the failure of the project overall — and could jeopardize the next phases of Mississippi Connects, including coaching, professional development and telehealth initiatives.
Executive-level involvement can help — and sometimes hurt
It’s worth examining why involvement by senior executives at both the MDE and the computer reseller were so important for the Mississippi Connects project. It’s also worth considering whether these features are present when deciding how to deploy executives on a project or delegate it to middle managers.
The work needed to move exceptionally fast. The C-suite leader at the computer reseller recalls he was able to make quick decisions about where to find new Chromebooks when a promised shipment failed to show up or how to deal with a manufacturer experiencing supply chain problems. For most projects, these types of problems would take a few days to sort out as lower-level managers decided whether it was worth kicking them up the chain of command. But with Mississippi Connects, time was of the essence and losing a few days was not an option.
The project was incredibly risky. On the line were millions of dollars of taxpayer money; the learning potential of hundreds of thousands of Mississippi schoolchildren; and the reputations of the many stakeholders involved. When top leaders at MDE and the computer reseller got involved in the nitty-gritty, it made clear where accountability and priority lay, and built goodwill. By conversing about device order details, the MDE’s CIO signaled to school districts that the state meant business and that the MDE was ready to move heaven and earth to deliver on its promises. Similarly, the computer reseller executive’s involvement showed the priority of the project internally. His ground-level view of the project showed that the project needed more support, and he was able to act quickly to divert human resources from a nearby state to Mississippi.
Buy-in from stakeholders was key to the project’s success. When top executives were involved, it made Mississippi Connects more visible to a range of communities. These executives had the connections and the gravitas to arrange for media coverage when trucks delivered devices to schools. They also coordinated visits of key state officials to warehouses where the computing devices were preconfigured. Such activities kept Mississippi Connects in the public eye and demonstrated how local communities benefited.
There are obvious pitfalls when senior leaders become so deeply involved in a project. It’s hard to sustain this approach for the long term. Leaders can become burned out, and it sets an impossible standard for team members farther down on the totem pole. It may distract senior leaders from the organization’s overall vision. And there’s a real risk that middle managers will feel that they are being micromanaged or that they are distrusted. But there can be big payoffs for short-term involvement of top executives in the details of certain kinds of projects.
Tips for when C-suite leaders should get involved in the nitty-gritty or delegate
The Mississippi Connects project offers clear lessons about when C-suite executives should be involved in the day-to-day (and minute-to-minute) details of a project — and when they shouldn’t:
- Look for high-stakes projects that are new, innovative and risky. Senior leaders can be an asset in negotiating the details of high-stakes projects, especially those that serve as a proof-of-concept. This also takes the burden of failure off the shoulders of a middle manager.
- Get the project off the ground with early success, but then turn to trusted associates to move it forward. This approach gives middle managers a model to work from and works out particularly thorny challenges of a project before it’s turned over. Meanwhile, middle managers have a chance to run with the project.
- Concentrate on removing roadblocks that can only be removed by someone at the top. Sometimes an impressive title can help move a partner along or convince an existing partner to move more quickly. When top leaders are part of these detail-oriented conversations, it can push a time-sensitive piece of a project forward.
- Match the personnel seniority level of your closest partners. If an equal partner is putting forward a senior leader for a routine meeting, it can be wise to match that with a senior leader of your own. This signals that you value the partnership equally and puts you on equal decision-making footing.
The vast majority of cases do not call for this type of intensive intervention by top executives. Indeed, in most cases, it’s counterproductive for executives to involve themselves in the details. But, as the device distribution phase of the Mississippi Connects project demonstrates, it can be a win for organizations in certain circumstances.
Rachel Burstein, PhD, is an independent education researcher and writer. Vanessa Peters Hinton, PhD, is a senior learning sciences researcher at Digital Promise.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.