Maybe you’ve seen the statistics on strategic execution. Depending on where you look, research indicates that as many as 90 percent of companies fail in this regard.
CEOs know there is a problem, too. For instance, Gartner found that 40 percent of executives say their enterprise is not aligned on strategy and execution. The view from the bottom up is even more disturbing. When asked to rate senior leaders in their companies, employees in a Harvard Business Review study saw only 8 percent as excelling on both strategy and execution.
Whatever the specific numbers, it is fair to say that there’s a gap between goals and achievement. If you’re among the senior leaders falling short of your strategic objectives each year, the big question isn’t how common such struggles may be (obviously, you’re not alone) but rather what to do about the problem. Here are some thoughts.
“Not My Job”
There is a romantic notion of the CEO as visionary. Think of it as the Steve Jobs Fallacy. In many corners of the internet, public perception is that Jobs simply conceived innovations like the iPod and iPhone and that was the end of the day. Winning assured!
Don’t get us wrong, Apple wouldn’t be Apple today without those revolutionary products. But there’s a lot more to business than a great idea—namely, the myriad steps required to bring that idea to fruition.
In their book, Execution — The Discipline of Getting Things Done, Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan do much to disavow CEOs of the notion that execution is a tactical matter and thus not in their purview. Or as they describe the Fallacy:
Lots of business leaders like to think that the top dog is exempt from the details of actually running things. It’s a pleasant way to view leadership: you stand on the mountaintop, thinking strategically and attempting to inspire your people with visions, while managers do the grunt work.
In the authors’ view, on the other hand, “There is an enormous difference between leading an organization and presiding over it.”
Take as an example another form of leader, NFL coaches. They can’t spend all their time in their offices negotiating contracts and drawing out plays. Eventually, they must be out on field, even on the cold, miserable days, doing the real work of coaching.
In the same way, the CEO and senior leadership team must get into the nitty-gritty of the business. That’s the job.
Unfortunately, simply adopting the mindset that execution is a leader’s responsibility isn’t enough. Bossidy and Charan define execution as “a systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it.”
Therein lie two challenges: exposing reality and taking action. Neither is easy; we’ll address both topics in turn.
The View from the Top
The point of view from the C-suite is, by definition, top down. And if we are getting real here, then we should also mention that unbiased feedback doesn’t often rise to that level unbidden. Not too many people want to walk into the corner office and lay out a painful truth. The act feels risky, even if it’s not.
As a result, senior executives frequently find themselves isolated from the facts on the ground. We uncover disconnects like this all the time. For example:
When we use Line of Sight analytics with Imprint Talent Readiness clients, we routinely see differences of 20 points or more (on a scale of 0 to 100) between CEOs and their leadership teams. Survey the ranks and the delta gets even bigger.
Similarly, in a 2021 survey by Predictive Index, executive engagement was 25 points higher than that of individual contributors. Leaders typically feel deep connection to their work but, clearly, the same may not apply organization-wide. This has broad implications for the day-to-day of strategy implementation.
Simply put, life is different at altitude. CEOs must accept that it is not “getting into the weeds” to ask for the facts directly from individuals in the know, or to use objective measures to surface reliable information. To the contrary, these efforts are essential.
CEOs must commit to uncovering reality through:
Persistent, constructive probing of the strategy and execution plans. Executives need to ask whether the goal is plausible and whether the organization has the capabilities, resources, and roadmap to achieve it.
Robust dialogue at all levels. No matter how difficult the issues raised or how uncomfortable the conversation that ensues, in-depth discussions must happen.
Direct involvement in the selection, evaluation, and development of the “people on the bus.” This cannot simply be handed off to HR.
Continual collection of feedback. And we mean going beyond the de facto annual employee survey.
Ongoing, objective measurement of the business. This should be more than the standard “did we hit the number?” financial analysis (although that information is important, too).
Once the CEO sees reality, next up is to follow through on it. The topic of taking action could comprise several books unto itself. From focusing on only a few priorities at once to translating strategy into operations, there is much to know and always more to learn.
One necessary foundation for it all, however, one mentioned by Bossidy and Charan but not often included in conversations about leadership is this: emotional fortitude.
Life here in the real world—well, it is hard. Denial is, as they say, a thing. At Imprint, we often find leaders are very good at identifying strengths in their businesses. Weaknesses, however, can be more difficult to confront. Even CEOs can subconsciously trick themselves into seeing things through lightly rose-tinted glasses.
That problem is exacerbated when working with others. Executives frequently try to build up their people by commenting on the positives and congratulating teams on a job well done. Frank conversations over where employees need to improve are less likely to happen. Going so far is to replace a genuinely nice person who has been with the company a long time but isn’t the right fit for a position—that’s never going to be fun.
By the same token, most of us don’t find conflict enjoyable, even when it’s ultimately productive. Inviting constructive confrontation among senior leadership or with next-level managers, rather than let issues fester, is difficult but necessary.
On a personal level, admitting mistakes, allowing oneself to be vulnerable, and acting from a place of authenticity. These and other characteristics of great leaders require a unique level of emotional fortitude.
If there is good news here, it is that, according to Bossidy and Charan, “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of acting, we act our way into a new way of thinking.” So, buck up and take a step forward, no matter how small. Action can change everything, really.
Need help determining which action to take first? That’s part of our job here at Imprint Talent Readiness. Feel free to reach out to us here.
Links to some execution’s statistics, for those interested.