In their book “Execution, the Discipline of Getting Things Done,” authors Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan focus on a single element of successful companies that is so often overlooked: the ability to execute. And while some engineering and construction companies would say execution is their core strength, others would argue that many of them fail to do this well.
To borrow from the book, execution is the main reason companies fall short on their promises. It is the gap between what a company’s leaders want to achieve and the ability of their organizations to deliver it. The superlative companies in our industry have linked together three key components—the people, strategy and operating plans—that provide the details of execution.
Many company CEOs would like to “think strategically” and let other managers do the dirty work of executing the plans. More often than not, however, the best performing companies are those where the CEO takes a passionate role in execution. To achieve the latter, here are the seven behaviors that matter as you learn to lead others to create a culture of execution:
- Know your people and your business. Every leader who receives information from someone is getting filtered information. If the CFO says that cash flow is not a problem, what is his or her definition of “no problem”? When project managers assume they can include unapproved change orders in an estimated revenue and profitability projection because they are sure that the owner will approve it next week, how will you know to ask, “Did you capture the additional costs?” if you do not know the business or person deeply enough? Connecting personally with your people helps you build a more intuitive feel for the business as well as the people who are executing work.
- Insist on realism. Nobody wants to be the messenger who gets shot or the troublemaker who challenges authority. People want to hide mistakes or buy time to figure out a solution rather than admit they do not have an answer now. Reality is at the heart of execution. Leaders must set the tone of embracing reality and living with uncomfortable conversations at times. Many companies have embarked on pie-in-the-sky strategies or suffered project write-downs due to a lack of honest dialogue that went missing early in the process or job. Questioning the status quo or delivering bad news early is never a bad thing; in fact, it should be encouraged. Keep it real.
- Set clear goals and priorities. One of most fundamental mistakes we see in senior managers is the laundry list of 10 to 12 priorities that are simply overwhelming to others who have to execute the array of tasks associated with the “executive wish list.” A strategic plan should never have more than three to four major priorities. Think about it, if you have 10 major goals, you have no sense of what is most important because everything is important.
- Follow-through. Everybody agreed that the goal was good, the strategy sound, but it was never accomplished. Sometimes it was because there was no one assigned responsibility, and accountability faltered. Maybe other things came up that seemed more important at the time. Maybe it was decided that it was not such a great idea in the first place, but no one spoke up. Simply put, the only way to create accountability and therefore a culture of execution is to have a strong process of follow-through in all things.
- Reward the doers. In general, our industry does this piece quite well, but it is amazing to find some companies where reward has no linkage to performance. You should absolutely distinguish those who achieve results and those who do not, either in wages or bonuses and preferably the latter. In a culture of execution, socialism is not the goal; it has to be clear that rewards and advancement are based upon performance.
- Expand the capabilities of your people. There are many baby boomer CEOs who are trying to figure out how to transfer their business to the next generation. They are often concerned or even sorely disappointed at the lack of business savvy in the next group of leaders. Company owners and senior executives have a responsibility to pass on their wisdom, knowledge and experience to those who will be running the organization after they are gone. This should never wait until they are ready to retire; it should happen all the time with regularity.
- Know yourself. Depth of character is essential to being a good leader, especially when focusing on execution. It requires emotional fortitude to take the heat for poor performance, ask the tough questions or deal honestly with friends who may be taking advantage of your relationship. It requires strength of character to listen to and perhaps accept other ideas opposite of yours and deal with conflict. It also enables you to have the confidence to accept and deal with your own weaknesses. This comes from self-discovery, which can be obtained through leadership development. Asking others to provide honest feedback on your performance as a leader and for ways to improve it is a good place to start.Corporate culture is powerful and potentially crippling if not oriented correctly. Most efforts at cultural change fail because they are linked to improving the company’s business performance. Better leaders hire better people; better people make a better culture, and a better culture leads to better results.