Execution – The Key Role of Leaders

“No excuses. No explanation. You don’t win on emotion. You win on execution.” Tony Dungy


As we move into June, how is your year going?  Are you where you want to be personally and professionally?  What needs to happen the remainder of the year for 2018 be one of your best?  What ‘mid-course’ corrections do you need to make?

Execution is one of my favorite topics.  Part of that ‘favoritism’ is because it took me a while to understand what constituted good execution, and a while longer to consistently execute.  Good execution is a process connected to strategy and implementation – whether personally or professionally.

We will explore this month some key concepts for improving your execution in your work.  The areas we will explore have been key to my development in this area, and in my ability to help my teams to execute better.  I hope you will come away with some ‘nuggets’ that will be useful.

I continue to be blessed by those of you who are willing to comment about my posts – encouraging me and offering suggestions.  This helps me to broaden my thinking and my writing.  Thank you.

Be well and do your best work,


Execution and Leadership

Tony Dungy labored a long time before he had the ultimate success of winning a Super Bowl.  Many people who had the privilege of knowing Tony during his coaching days will tell you that his humility and having the faith to believe in the system and his people regardless of what the ‘facts’ may have told him were keys to his success; along with clarity of purpose, and the path to get there.

Clarity is ‘job one’ for me.  In observing and being part of many strategic discussions over the years, I found that the ability to implement strategy (execute) started with what was most important.

  • Who are our target customers?
  • What is our value proposition that differentiates us?
  • What capabilities to we need to deliver our value proposition better than anyone else?

Clarity around these items enables us to develop a strategy that is meaningful.  One of my favorite questions around what we need to be working on is, “What are the things we need to work on that if we don’t do them nothing else will matter?”

Clarity around purpose comes from ‘robust dialog.’  It is the ability for those who have been invited into the conversation to voice opinion and ‘discuss’ the best options.  These discussions can be quite passionate, often appearing more argumentative than productive.  It is from those passionate discussions that clarity of purpose often emerges.  In order for these discussions to take place well, the group must trust and are not be afraid of ‘fall out.’  From these discussions the best strategy is formulated.

Individuals and organizations are often de-railed from successful execution at the start – their strategy dialogue reflects an organizational ‘malaise’ lacking in sufficient candor, clarity, and accountability.  They say they agree when they are either unclear or don’t want to risk ‘rocking the boat.’  As a result, the stated things don’t get supported well which leads to poor execution.  This activity saps individual and organizational ‘energy’ leading to mediocrity or worse.

Good strategy discussion requires that every leader know their people and know their business.  If you don’t have a firm grasp of both you will likely make assumptions that are not based on reality.  Those assumptions can be deadly when it comes to your dialog about strategy and implementation.

That means the leader must spend time directly in the operations, observing and having direct conversations; the kind of observation and questions that help confirm or alter what the leader has been told about a given aspect of the business.  We receive information from our direct reports, but if we’re a senior leader we find that this information can be biased (i.e., My boss doesn’t like negative news.  I can’t tell them that).  It’s not that you don’t trust the information from your direct reports, but periodically do a reality check and inspect for yourself.

One of the most important lessons I learned about executing well was that ‘less was more.’  The less we had to focus on the better we did.  We are a society that loves ‘activity.’  That includes many businesses.  At times, I believe that we love activity more than we love getting the intended results.  (“I just love checking of the boxes of my To Do list.”)

As a result, I have worked with more leaders who believe ‘more is more.’  Studies demonstrate, however, that when we attempt to do more than three major goals a year we see a degradation in the organization’s ability to do them well and timely.  The degradation in what we can execute on continues proportionally from four to nine major goals.  When we hit 10 or more major goals we will do none of them well. There are simply too many moving parts to track and execute well.  This ‘attraction’ for doing many things is one of the chief contributors to lack of clarity.  The value of three initiatives, or less, is that everyone in the organization can remember those initiatives and can understand what their contribution is in achieving one or more of the goals.

Whether you call them Wildly Important Goals (WIGS), or major initiatives, the distillation process (‘robust dialog’) must be good enough to distinguish the vital work to be done from the ‘nice to have.’  These goals should ‘inspire’ leaders and the workforce alike.  Everyone should see how they can contribute to at least one of the goals.  If not, then the scope of the goal might not be large enough.  (NOTE: keep in mind that you have the “keep the doors open” work that you do every day.  It is the urgent while the WIGS are the important work on our future.  We must do the ‘routine’ work well, but leadership must insure that sufficient time is being allocated to the important.  There should be something every day that people need to complete that contributes to the achievement of our most important work – moving the organization to a new level of contribution and performance.)

Great strategy needs to be married to great implementation.  How will we accomplish this strategy?  Who will be involved?  When will we accomplish it?  How will we measure success?  This is the ‘project management’ piece.  The clear goals get developed into clear action steps with people responsible and dates, including what measures we will use (leading and lagging) to understand our level of success. Regular status reports must occur to insure the important work is being done on a timely basis.

This work is also important because it is the work that helps expand our peoples’ capabilities.  It is an important by-product of the important work, and requires frequent feed back from leadership as to how they are doing with this work.  Being clear about what they are doing well, and what they are not, is a critical part of the communication.  Rewarding those doing well inspires them to learn and do more.  Likewise, providing ‘what must improve’ conversations is important to insuring corrective action is taken, or that they are no longer part of the team.

Great execution is the result of great strategy turned into great implementation.  Understand the process, and the inter-relatedness of each, and you will understand the structure of executing.  As a leader, it is imperative to know your role:

  • The creation of what are the most important things for the department/organization to work on
  • How and who will implement and them by when; what the measures of success will be
  • Following up to ensure that your people/areas are executing on what we implemented, and hitting the desired measures.

Everyone enjoys being on a winning team.  Part of the ‘winning’ is knowing that we are doing important work well.  We are advancing our organization’s competitiveness and success.  It is a shared process requiring everyone to do their part.

To a better you…


Of InterestStrategy, Implementation, Execution https://hbr.org/2015/03/defining-strategy-implementation-and-execution

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