Connecting the strategy execution dots

In his best-selling book Execution, Larry Bossidy described how he drove performance at AlliedSignal as a CEO. He achieved success by personally negotiating performance objectives with Managers levels way below him. The company outperformed the industry under his leadership but quickly gave up its gains shortly after he left the company.

Why did that happen? Because effective execution is a shared responsibility delivered through distributed leadership. Effective execution in large complex organisations arise from several effective decisions and actions at all levels of the organisation. Such decisions sometimes involves making tough trade-offs. For example a sales person sticking to the company’s choice of customer segments might mean turning away lucrative business opportunity which could have enabled him to meet his target. It takes a sales person with shared leadership understanding to be able to quickly make such a decision in a way it supports rather than compromise the company strategy.

While concentrating power at the top sure has some very powerful short term advantages, it robs the company of the ability to execute strategy in the long run. When top management insist on making the last calls, middle level managers lose the ability and opportunity to exercise their skills and own results which stalls execution.

Organisations are frustrated in strategy execution because of misalignment between organisational design and strategy. A recent study conducted by Brian Reuben Advisory interviewing senior executives from different industries in Nigeria revealed this frustration. Their responses indicate that while some organisations in Nigeria sure have clearly defined path to value creation, the way work is organised, assets are deployed and efforts rewarded defeats the strategy from the start.

To be clear, execution is a designed system to get work done through questioning, analysis, and follow up. It is the operationalization of strategy by meshing it with reality, aligning people with goals, and delivering on expected results. This takes serious discipline, understanding and consistency. It requires everyone in the organisation not only having clarity of understanding about the strategy, it requires that they believe and are excited about it.

This is where leading the strategy come in. This is where the C-Suite should understand that strategy execution is not just about them. The CEO of Google, Sunda Pichai summarized this understanding in his thought-provoking speech at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur: When you’re trying to run something at the scale of Google, we have now over 60,000 people and…you rely on other strong leaders. A lot of what I do is… I have an outstanding leadership team. It’s learning to let go and really empowering people at all levels of the organisation, and trusting them to do the right thing.

As a leader, a lot of your job is to make those people successful. It’s less about trying to be successful (yourself), and more about making sure you have good people and your work is to remove that barrier, remove roadblocks for them so that they can be successful in what they do. This is the mentality that works.

Execution also suffers as a result of the inability of the leadership to effectively communicate the strategy. Ask an average manager how he communicates their strategy and he will tell you about monthly review meetings, town hall meetings and emails. But that’s a lousy metric because it measures communication based on input. To be clear, communication does not equal understanding, feedback is. Now, understand that feedback is not just a mere repetition of the strategy. What you seek is the ability of your people to express your strategy in their own words. If your people cannot explain your strategy to a stranger in five minutes and ensure understanding, don’t expect execution.

Communication is a skill a manager has to deliberately learn. And don’t let certifications confuse you. Knowledge is demonstrated not by activities or action but by results. Effective execution requires not just leaders that communicate, it requires a communicating organisation. A communicating organisation is an organisation that communicates. It’s not just about the tools; it’s more about the attitude. It’s about a culture of willingness to pass information in a timely, coherent and comprehensive way to ensure people have the ability and passion to make the right decisions in a timely manner. It is not many managers that understand the purpose and power of creating a communicating organisation but without it execution will suffer terribly.

The CEO of a London based professional service firm invested lots of efforts and time in communicating her company strategy. The management team met once a week and she ensured they began by reciting their company strategy and their key priorities for the year. She was convinced her efforts paid off when an in-house survey showed 84 percent of her staff agreed that they have clarity on the company’s top priorities. She was however shocked when she engaged a consulting firm to carry out a survey because fewer than one-third could name even two of the company’s top five priorities in their own words. This is why communication must go beyond emailing and reviews.

Execution also suffers miserably in the hands of the executive who believes that execution means sticking to the strategic plan. Many managers have a hard time understanding that a plan could be a good guide for actions if everything can be static. Sadly that’s not the case with the business environment. Sticking to strategic planning defeats the very need for strategy. A plan is something to hold in hand while being willing and able to respond to changes in a timely way.

Effective execution means your organisation supports and reward people who do things differently and willing to accommodate the mistake that results from failed decisions. This is a double-edged sword and could defeat the very objective of management. But let’s face it, laws and policies are made for people, not the other way round. If someone understand a policy but can prove that a better result is at hand without hurting the values, culture or strategic direction of the organisation, then it should, by all means, be supported.

Execution requires not just having a strategy and plan for its execution, it requires being a Strategic Organisation (ask for the article on this

Organisations rise and fall based on their ability to execute their strategy. While this thought has occupied the mind of thought leaders and practitioners the general results clearly show that only a few organisations master the details. Managers, therefore, have to give more attention to execution. Truth remains you can’t help yourself beyond your understanding. Better execution requires, therefore, more understanding on the subject. More often than none, managers seek help when things are out of shape. That’s the pathway to mediocrity. If what you know hasn’t given you better results, what’s the point continuing on the same path?

Dr Reuben is one of the most sought after thought leaders on the subject of Strategy in Nigeria. He speaks at business events globally. He has written over 150 articles and facilitated over 200 strategy training programs for senior executives in diverse industries. He has advised and mentored senior executives in several organisations including Africa-Reinsurance Corporation, Department of Petroleum Resources, Trident Energy United Kingdom, BusinessDay, and Dolphin Telecom among others.

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