The most important difference between a company and its competitors – is the ability to execute strategy. When companies fail to execute on strategy, the most frequent explanation is that the CEO’s strategy was wrong. But the strategy by itself is usually not the cause. Strategies most often fail because they aren’t executed well.
In their book Execution – The Discipline of Getting Things Done, authors Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan provide important guidance and advice. They point out that effective execution includes several key activities, including:
- Making assessments and assumptions about the business environment.
- Assessing the organization’s capabilities.
- Linking strategy to operations and the people who are going to implement the strategy.
- Linking rewards to outcomes.
Bossidy and Charan also believe that execution-driven leaders have seven essential behaviors in common. The first leadership behavior is to know your people and your business. In companies that don’t execute, the leaders are usually out of touch with the day-to-day realities. They’re getting lots of information delivered to them, but it’s filtered. They aren’t engaged with the business, so they don’t know their organizations comprehensively, and their people don’t really know them. Being actively involved allows the leader to connect personally with his or her people, and those personal connections help build a solid feel for the business – and the people. The second leadership behavior is to insist on realism. Realism is the heart of execution, but many organizations are full of people who are trying to avoid or shade reality. Why? Because stark reality can make life uncomfortable. How do you make realism a priority? You start by being realistic yourself. Then you make sure realism is the goal of all discussions in the organization. One way to “be real” is to be data-driven. Accurate numbers and trends don’t lie. If your strategies and plans aren’t causing the key numbers to move in the right direction, the reality is that your plans or tactics or your people need to change. The third leadership behavior is to set clear goals and priorities. Leaders who execute must focus on just a few clear priorities that everyone can grasp. Why?
- First, targeting three or four priorities will produce the best results from the resources at hand. A small number of priorities will help people focus.
- Second, people need clear priorities if they are going to execute well. Leaders who execute effectively talk plainly and forthrightly about what’s on their minds. They know how to simplify goals and tactics so that others can understand them, evaluate them, and act on them.
The fourth leadership behavior is to follow through. Failure to follow through is widespread in business, and a major cause of poor execution. How can you avoid this result? In many cases, a simple three-point plan will do.
- Don’t just hope or assume that people will buy into an idea. Instead, dig for their reasons for resisting it, and address those concerns.
- Create a follow-through mechanism that ensures that everyone will do what he or she is supposed to in order to execute on a goal or priority. Often, a monthly meeting will be sufficient. This involves the use of accurate data showing results vs. plan. The leader and other high-ranking executives must participate. Leaders can’t delegate execution.
- As the Leader, make it clear that you are not going to forget about the priorities, and that everyone involved is required to track and report on their part of the plan.
The fifth leadership behavior is to reward the doers. If you want people to produce specific results, reward them accordingly. Many corporations do such a poor job of linking rewards to performance that there’s little correlation at all. They don’t distinguish between those who achieve results and those who don’t, either in base pay or in bonuses or stock options. When companies don’t execute, chances are that they don’t measure, don’t reward, and don’t promote people who know how to get things done. If you want your company to have a culture of execution, make it clear to everybody that rewards and respect are based on performance – and results. The sixth leadership behavior is to expand the capabilities of the people on your team through coaching. As a leader, you’ve acquired a lot of knowledge and experience along the way. One of the most important parts of your job, and the job of every leader in your organization, is to pass your knowledge and “know how” on to the next generation of leaders. This is how you expand the capabilities of your people – and the capabilities of your organization. This is what makes rapid growth companies grow. Great leaders regard every encounter as an opportunity to coach. The most effective way to coach is to observe a person in action and then provide specific useful feedback. The feedback should point out examples of behavior and performance that are good or that need to be changed. The seventh and final leadership behavior is to know (and manage) yourself. To know yourself, you must develop an awareness of your personal strengths and weaknesses, especially in dealing with other people. And you need the ability to build on your strengths and correct your weaknesses. Great leaders have the courage and confidence to accept points of view that are different than their own and deal with conflict and challenges in group settings. If you can’t be honest with yourself, deal honestly with business realities, or give people forthright assessments, you can’t execute.
What kind of people are you looking for when filling leadership positions with people who can execute? They should possess four key characteristics:
• First, these leaders know how to energize people. Too many leaders think they can create energy by giving pep talks. The leaders whose visions come true are those who build and sustain their people’s momentum. They bring things down to earth, focusing on and celebrating short-term accomplishments on the way to bigger goals.
• Second, leaders are decisive on tough issues. Decisiveness is the ability to make difficult decisions swiftly and well, and to act on them. Many corporations are filled with people who dance around decisions without ever making them. Some leaders simply do not have the emotional fortitude to confront the tough ones. When they don’t, everybody in the business knows they are wavering, procrastinating, and avoiding reality.
• Third, leaders get things done through others. This is a fundamental leadership skill. Yet, poor leaders smother their people, blocking their initiative and creativity. They’re the micromanagers — insecure leaders who can’t trust others to get it right because they don’t know how to monitor their performance. Other leaders err in the opposite direction and abandon their people, tossing the ball entirely into their court. Then, when things don’t get done as expected, they’re frustrated. Both types reduce the capabilities of their organizations.
• Fourth, leaders follow through. Follow-through is the cornerstone of execution, and every leader who’s good at executing follows through religiously. Following through ensures that people are doing the things they committed to, according to the agreed upon timetable. Care to have a robust discussion about the quality of leadership in your business? How about having the leaders and managers rank (from 1-5) the ability of your leadership team to execute on the Seven Essential Leadership Behaviors and the Four Key Leadership Characteristics. When the scores are in, pick the 2 characteristics or behaviors that have the lowest scores and discuss the most important things the leadership team needs to: (a) keep doing (b) stop doing and (c) start doing. Your business is always evolving right? Why not “take charge” of the way this critical aspect of your business evolves?