A few years ago, I was coaching a senior leader who couldn’t understand what was going wrong. “We’re great at strategy,” he told me. “But we don’t seem to do execution well.”
This mystified him. Throughout the planning process, he and his team had developed strategies and processes that aligned with their goals. They had teams in place to carry out the plans. It all seemed to make sense.
And yet what kept happening? Projects would get off to a great start. But then, well, nothing terrible happened: It just seemed that people would lose focus and energy, and the projects would drop off the radar. Some projects were never really completed or ended up with returns below target. Clearly, something was missing. But what?
For most of our executive level clients, it’s that time of year again—planning season.
As business cycles go, this is a time of committing to the work to be done and the results expected by year end. For some, this includes revenue targets, cost reductions and talent planning. And for many, this also means personal performance goals—the leadership behaviors that must be developed to achieve the promised metrics.
While leaders can rely on established formulas for planning when it comes to the tangible measures of revenue, costs, and headcount, where do we turn for the qualities of leadership that will ensure successful execution?
As with the case of that leader I coached, there is usually no shortage of emphasis on business metrics, such as revenue, profitability, and win rates. And there is also good attention to creating best practices and determining roles and responsibilities. So boxes are checked, commitments made, and intentions are good.
The execution gap arises because there is often little attention paid to the emotional and inspirational side of making sure that things happen. As a leader, what are you doing to ensure that people are engaged—both in heart and mind—with turning your sound strategy into execution and business results? People need to get why it matters to you—and to them.
One leader I know came up with a solution that worked for him. He put yellow sticky notes on his desk… and his notebook… and his phone. Each had one word written on it: “Why?” This simple but effective method helped remind that leader to always give people the back story—to share his thinking and make the business case for his statements, doing so in a way that mattered to each stakeholder. This ongoing reinforcement ensured that people never forgot why they were doing a task or completing a process. Their work was now a means to a satisfying end.
In our work coaching senior executives, we’ve found that three factors must be in place to ensure that good intentions become successful actions. Here are three leadership tips:
1. Engage others to create your goals and prepare for blind spots
You are not leading a business; you are leading people in a business. Consider the human side of execution. Goals must be set within the context of your organizational environment and the work you have committed to achieve together. Ask for input and feedback from peers, direct reports, and your manager to determine the highest value actions you can take. Use 360 feedback to uncover blind spots that may be holding you back.
2. Create accountability for your plan
Make your leadership goals and actions specific and measurable, and share them with trusted advisors who will hold you accountable. Give permission to others to provide you with real-time feedback that's clear and actionable. If you can't answer the question "What will success look like?" you won't be able to achieve it.
3. Commit time and honor it
All too often, leaders procrastinate when it comes to creating their own development plan. However, to create a plan that will marry a great strategy with real execution, you must commit more time and mental bandwidth to exploring new approaches. Review your calendar and ask yourself: How am I dividing up time now, and should I divide up that “time pie” differently to better reflect my priorities? Build in weekly blocks on your calendar for reading and reflection. Engage a coach to offer new strategies that challenge and push you beyond established behaviors—especially when it comes to rallying your team to turn your plan into results.
This time next year you will be reviewing 12 months of performance and resetting your commitments for the next business cycle. Will you have achieved your leadership goals?