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The Lost Art of Execution

Updated: May 2

I've sat in countless meetings where ideas and opportunities flow like a river after a week of heavy rain. In my consulting work, I help clients build 1-5 year strategic plans. When I'm working with clients who have never done this work, it's very common for there to be lots of ideas on what the organization should do or take advantage of, but when it comes to actually executing there's an awkward silence.

Hot Take: Your idea is only worth something if it can be executed on.

Execution is at the intersection of good strategy, an operating plan to support, and a robust people process

Good Strategy

Good strategy is critical for execution. You've maybe felt this before. At some point in the growth of your organization "making it up as you go" started feeling unsustainable. Without good strategy clearly communicated throughout the organization, you get chaos and a lack of focus. So what is "good strategy"?
  • Good strategy considers external factors such as market conditions, competition, consumer behavior and more

  • It creates a clear lens with which to pass new opportunities or ideas through: "Does this new opportunity or idea help us achieve our imperatives and goals?"

  • Good strategy is flexible. Things can and will change. Your strategy needs to be willing & able to adapt to new information

  • Good strategy is, above all, focused. Nobody has endless money, people, time or resources. The winning strategies are the ones that relentlessly focus your organization on the "most important stuff."

  • It will also recognize that what got you to where you are is very unlikely to take you to the next level. Your strategy needs to be willing to scrap all that has come before in favor of innovation and progress.

A Robust People Process

Until AI gets a LOT better, we are going to (and should) continue to rely on humans to execute our strategy. Your team(s) must be focused on, aligned with, and held accountable to the strategy that has been set forth. There a few key areas in which you should have a robust people process in place to ensure the success of your strategy:
  1. Hiring & Recruiting

  2. Performance Management & Compensation Strategy

  3. Succession Planning

While the above 3 areas are by no means exhaustive or a comprehensive, holistic and robust people strategy, they are for sure the place to start. The overarching message is that you have to be deeply invested in your people, deeply invested in managing them well, and relentless in your approach of constantly reviewing whether you have the right people focused on the right things to get your organization to the next level. If you're a manager, leader, executive or owner who thinks "I have people to handle that" and you leave your people process to your HR department or middle managers, I assure you that you are leaving opportunity on the table. There is no job title that excludes you from focusing a large portion of your time to your people processes. So what should you be thinking about?
  1. Hiring & Recruiting - Are you hiring for execution? Are you digging in with interviewes and reference checks to understand if the candidate has actually executed? Do they execute under pressure? Do they execute and deliver but at the expense of the culture, their co-workers or long term success? Make sure your recruiting process is robust enough to weed out the good talkers and the "Idea Men"

  2. Performance Management & Compensation Strategy - Do you have a performance management practice that spans across all tiers of the organization? Does it include professional development, disciplinary procedures, a thoughtful compensation strategy that recognizes and rewards the right behaviors and outcomes? Do your evaluations generate robust and meaningful dialog about performance or are they superficial?

  3. Succession Planning - Are you marrying your strategy and goals to your people? Do you know what it will take to get where you want to go and are you staffing accordingly? Have you identified top talent in your org and are you developing that talent?

Here's an exercise: Write the job descriptions for your critical roles as you see them needing to be in 12-24. months from now. If your organization is growing, those roles should look notably different. Now look at the person currently in that role. Can they get to where you need them to be in 12-24. months to still succeed in the role? If not how are you helping them get there? Simply sitting back and hoping people will grow with you and predict the needs of the company is not going to work. You have to be proactive and thoughtful.

Strategy-Aligned Operating Plan

Does your organization have a clear operating model to match your strategy? You can't execute without it. If you aren't resourcing the right things, ensuring the right standards are in place, and project managing the right work, your strategy is doomed to fail. What are some key components to thoughtful operations that are married to the delivery of your strategy?
  1. Priorities are clear and everyone's work is focused on what matters

  2. The right resources, operating procedures, training and tools are deployed to ensure your teams can execute on the strategy

  3. The strategic plan itself is project managed. This means it is reviewed, transparent and with clear accountabilities to goals, project milestones, and deadlines.

  4. Your org structure is designed to support the execution of the strategy. Don't have a sales team? It might be hard to improve sales by 15% quarter over quarter.

  5. Your finances are aligned to the achievement of your strategy. Budget is deployed accordingly, expenses are managed accordingly, etc.

Having a 5 year roadmap does not = execution. You have to align your people, and your operating plan to the achievement of that roadmap. It's hard work that pays off. Take the time to slow down, and master the lost art of execution.

In summary: You can't fake it. At some point your organization's culture will become chaos and you'll start to see results slipping or outright failure. If you want to execute and win, you have to build your strategy in line with a robust people strategy and align your business' operations to the achievement of your strategy.

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