Keys to Great Execution

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D. copyright 2007

Fortune 500 companies pay consulting firms like McKinsey $750,000. - $1,000,000 to help them develop a strategic plan. They get paid whether or not the company actually executes the plan - successfully or not. Jim Collins, in Good to Great noted, "Strategy per se did not separate the good-to-great companies from the comparison companies."

Terrific strategic plans won’t amount to much if you don’t deliver. What does it take to really execute well?

I’m fortunate that I’ve worked with dozens of senior executives across industries, from small to Fortune 500 companies. 80% or more have been top performers (not problem executives) who hired me to help them play at an even higher level. I’ve noticed a few common denominators of those high performing executives and their organizations regarding “execution,” which I will share with you in this briefing. In addition, I will tap some of the insights from the book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan.

The most common theme I’ve heard from top performing executives is that they focus on only two or three main objectives at any one time… not a dozen or more. They ask themselves and their people the following question: "What 2 or 3 things must we accomplish over the next six to twelve months to achieve our objectives/goals? They then relentlessly pursue those goals while not getting sidetracked by others. As Ulysses did in the Odyssey, they do everything they can to not succumb to the seductive songs of the Sirens that will lure them to their deaths upon rocky shores.

Square in your ship's path are Sirens, crying beauty to bewitch men coasting by; woe to the innocent who hears that sound! Homer

Charan & Bossidy outlined seven essential behaviors that help in execution that dovetail nicely with the above:

Know your people and business – Leaders who are out of touch with the day-to-day realities of their organization and only get information filtered through direct reports will be at a disadvantage. Delegating authority does not mean delegating oversight and direction. You’re not a micromanager when you stay on top of the details of the business - only if you’re telling everyone how to run their business. The common answer I get when I ask executives to describe how they want their boss to manage them is: “Tell me what hill to take, but don’t tell me how to do it.”

Insist on realism – This means that you insist that projections be realistic. It also means that you expect to hear the truth, not what people think you want to hear. Furthermore, you need to support this by never shooting the messenger, avoiding confrontations or not allowing people to challenge you or your assumptions. Top-flight execs demand the facts, debate them openly, look for holes in the logic and then make decisions that lead to execution.

Set clear goals and priorities – As noted earlier, people need a small number of clear priorities to execute well. Simplicity is the byword.

Follow through – Leaders who execute well monitor and hold people accountable for the commitments they make while helping them overcome the inevitable obstacles. It is naïve, if not stupid, to think that great plans are executed without obstacles ever blocking the way. Expect to run into obstacles but instill in your people that they can find ways to bust through or work around them. Teach them that they will learn from mistakes by acknowledging your own mistakes and making visible course corrections.

Reward the doers – Link rewards to performance. Many companies reward primarily for seat time. You have to find ways to reward top performers monetarily and otherwise, e.g., acknowledgement, advancement opportunities, etc.

Expand people’s capability through coaching – This is probably the most difficult part of an executive's job because it takes time, awareness and discipline on the his/her part. You’re dreaming if you really expect people to “figure it out on their own.” Some will, but usually through trial and error. Do you have years to develop people through the school of hard knocks? I doubt it in this age of fast growth global competition. People can improve if given useful feedback about their performance and guidance or suggestions of alternative ways of doing things. Why not accelerate the learning process by being accessible as a resource when needed? Make it “ok” for people to ask for help. This is critical for younger employees, who often think that if they admit they don’t know something, they will be viewed as deficient. Offer to observe them in action and to provide supportive, specific, useful feedback and suggestion for improvement.

Know thyself - As a leader, you need to have the self-confidence to be honest with yourself and to deal with organizational realities. Top leaders do what they can to become aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They don’t stop at self-awareness however. They build on their strengths and either correct the weaknesses or learn how to work around them. Leaders who are self-confident and disciplined tend to work hard at developing themselves and to hire and promote people who have skills that complement theirs. You will earn the respect of your followers primarily by modeling self-awareness and discipline. Furthermore, if you are conscientious about your own development, they will more likely be disciplined about theirs.

In summary, in improving an organization’s performance there are three points that Charan and Bossidy try to drive home. 1. Execution is a discipline. 2. Execution is linked to strategy. 3. Execution is the major job of the executive, not developing strategy. Lastly, I will add that keeping focused on execution must become the core of a company’s culture.