The Art of Execution
“Good ideas today are cheap, a dime a dozen in our real-time, inter-networked, fast paced world. Brilliant concepts and practices are disseminated with stunning speed … What’s still in short supply, though, is the ability to effect change, to get things implemented, to make things happen” (from Discipline of Market Leaders, Treacy and Wiersema, 1995). As you finished watching the Super Bowl … the loosing coach will argue that they had a solid strategy, they were well prepared mentally and physically, had a tremendous game plan … they just failed to execute and thus lost. Over and over again, in business, in sports, in life, in school you hear the same message … the expectations were not met because execution was lacking.
In business, what is interesting is that execution is considered by many as a low level task that can be delegated and managed. And even when the CEO confirms that the company failed to execute, it is not clear where the failure actually resides and how one transitions a company to execute. The culture of execution is defined at the top of the organization and every level of the organization is responsible for the execution, the higher one is in the organization, the greater the responsibility.
What does execution really mean? In simple terms execution is the ability get things done or making results happen. The primary role of any leader is to execute … plain and simple. The leader can not and should not delegate this responsibility to anyone in the organization, and if that were to happen, clearly the organization is doomed. The challenge for any business leader is not to confuse “doing things themselves” with being responsible for execution, as these are two very different and distinct tasks. When an organization is struggling, the tendency for business leaders is to “role up the sleeves”, take over or micro manage every aspect of the business, all of which are dangerous and short term remedies.
According to “Execution – The Discipline of getting things done” (by Bossidy and Charan, 2002), there are three distinct processes that every business leader has to take responsibility for … People … Strategy … Operations … these are key processes that help drive the culture of execution within any organization.
Entrepreneurs who start their own business go through an interesting cycle … during the initial days of the organization they are responsible for the entire operation and are aware of all happening, even the minor issues. As the company grows, a good entrepreneur is able to “let go”, empower others to help move the business forward while still retaining the pulse of the organization and able to step at anytime to rescue a failing project, department or business area.
As the company grows further, the entrepreneur is further removed and there is a tendency to remove oneself from the business and operate the business through others … the expectation of the leader is that the management chain will operate as he/she did driving the execution. What really happens is that the chain of command, seeing the leader removed from the business, start doing the same and suddenly there is no execution but a lot of very good strategy and management going no where.
How does the leader execute without doing the work? The leader drives the process that defines the business. A sales manager commits to the leader that the quota for the quarter will be achieved, which the leader accepts as fact. At the end of the quarter, the quota is not met, the business leader is mystified given the previous commitment and one could argue that the sales manager failed in the execution? But the leader should have expected nothing else … the fact that the sales manager committed to the quota does not mean anything unless the leader asks the questions … how is the quota going to be met; what does the pipeline look like; do the clients have the budget; are there other competitors to worry about; if the pain real; is the solution relevant and accepted by the technical folks etc … That is execution by the leader … and from the answers to those questions, the leader has a solid feel for the quota, what it will take to achieve the quota and more critically what are the risks.
From these questions, a culture of execution is developed as the sales manager asks the sales team a similar set of questions, driving the strategy, understanding the strengths and weaknesses and making things happen. In this example, it is not about the leader going out and selling, but defining the execution process and making it happen.
Execution means having the right people, the right environment, the right message, the right business model, the right incentive, the right compensation, the right team structure to deliver the results. In a sports team, a solid coach understands the strength and weaknesses of the team, and prepares a solid execution based on taking advantage of the strength and minimizing the impact of the weaknesses. This is how business strategies work … clearly understanding the people you have and the business you are in will allow one to execute to success.
So the next time you hear a CEO saying, I am no longer involved in “execution” … run …