A recent study reported in the Harvard Business School Press found that only one in 10 large company CEOs achieve their growth targets. Considering the enormous amount of time and resources spent annually creating the perfect strategic plan, these results point to a fundamental and expensive gap between leaders who create strategic plans and the people who are expected to execute them. Why is it, then, that leaders who boldly set robust agendas designed to inspire their people and dominate their marketplace, far too often end up licking their wounds in defeat before the year is out?
While each situation differs to some degree, consider these four common reasons good strategies don’t lead to good results:
1. The “I’m the boss, so it will get done” fallacy.
When the job title gets in the way of reality, failure is sure to result. The label on your business card – CEO, president, VP, director, senior manager, whatever – clouds a lot of perceptions. No matter how high-falutin a strategy is – demonstrating brilliance and shrewd marketplace acumen – execution of the plan is only as probable as the tightest bottleneck in the system. Do you want to win? If so, find where the business process is in constraint and focus your company’s resources to alleviate the logjam. The old adage, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” is as true in business as it is in life.
The best business strategy balances aspiration with perspiration. The humbling part of being a leader is that your fate – and your organization’s – lies in the hands of least amongst your team. This doesn’t mean a leader can’t be forward-looking and motivational; far from it. An essential responsibility of a leader is to enlarge the organizational dialog to include expansive aims and aggressive targets. The irony, though, is that your performance is more closely tethered to slowest moving member of your team than to your expansive aspirations and best strategies.
The “strategy-to-execution” process breaks down when the strategy is an ego-stroking, leader-centered document, rather than one that clearly defines the value the company provides both internally to the entire team and – more importantly – to external customers.
The most important question for a leader isn’t, “What do I want to do?” but rather, “What can we get done working together?”
2. It’s about throughput not input.
Laying out an aggressive agenda sounds good to senior managers, shareholders and Wall Street, but ultimately it’s what comes out the end of the pipe that matters, not what you cram into the front of it. The rank-and-file – those chartered to interpret the strategy and take action – look at broad, sweeping strategic plans with rolled eyes and deep sighs of dejection. When the corporation concentrates on creating fancy strategic plans – leveraging high-priced outside consultants, spending time on executive offsites and assembling impressive looking SWOT charts – the practical issue of individual capacity is left on the sideline.
Imagine a doctor in the ER looking strategically at a trauma victim. Examining the patient the doctor thinks to herself, “I need to set that arm, stabilize the blood pressure, stop the bleeding in the chest, keep the airway clear, ensure the patient is on a good nutrition program, takes a daily multi-vitamin, gets started on a smoking cessation program, and enrolls in an anger management counseling.”
This approach to medical care would lead to disastrous results. Instead the doctor pays attention to the most critical element of treatment and solves that first. Once stabilized, attention is allocated to the next priority. In business, too many strategic plans take a “kitchen sink” approach to the business priorities: Ensuring that a little bit of everything gets done, but nothing gets completely done.
The most important question in the strategic plan: “Can we do all of this, and if we can what do we do first?”
3. It’s not about execution, it’s about focus.
How many times have you heard a leader state, “We have the right strategy, but we can’t execute”? The fact is that without focus any organization – from a football team to a huge multi-national corporation – will fail to achieve its goals. Generally people do what they are rewarded to do. When there is confusion, the essential connection between the strategic plan and the work that gets done is critically compromised.
The most impressive – albeit, painful – way to gain focus is to go into crisis. Look at the heightened focus a crisis delivers to an organization. People immediately get on the same page, the value of the work is clearly perceived, teamwork is highly valued, and individuals perform at peak levels.
Some organizations operate this way: Crisis management as a way to get things done. This is insane and unsustainable. But, how do you drive focus into an organization without sacrificing rational and stable business practice? You must teach your organizations where it is OK to fail: What tasks are imperative to the health of the company and which ones – though important – can be compromised?
This is tough to do because failure is not traditionally taught in leadership courses. “Failure is not an option,” is a quip that has become part of our cultural lexicon. Not knowing where you are willing to fail means not being serious about success. Leaders must uncompromisingly communicate the critical path to success and do so at the individual level. Distractions abound, setbacks occur and deviation from the strategic plan happens before the ink on the document is dry. The organization that knows how to “mind its business” is the one that delivers on its vital promises.
The most important question to ask about execution: “What is your focus?”
4. Not knowing how to define success.
This seems odd given that the strategic plan is all about illuminating a path to success, but when success has multiple definitions there is neither a cohesive nor a unifying message for the organization. Worse yet, if you cannot define success internally, the chances of defining it for your clients are dramatically reduced.
The bias, of course, is to measure success with reams of financial data. This is essential, as the DNA of a business is defined in numbers. Yet, numbers can do poor justice to the process of defining success. They can provide conflicting evidence of success, be internally focused to a fault, and provide information on past performance rather than an accurate prediction of future outcomes.
A vital job of a leader is to decipher the difference: management is the collection of data, leadership is creating organizational action.
The most important question to ask when defining success: “Are we successful, and if we are, how do we know?”
Leaders fail because no matter how outstanding the strategic thinking, which is typically generated at the top of an organization, it is only as good as it is understood and executed at every level in the organization.
John Baker†is†author of the newly released book,†“READY Thinking – Primed For Change.” As a leadership expert, speaker and founder of READY Thinking, LLC, John has helped hundreds of organizations†achieve success by adopting a†practical framework of thinking during times of change and opportunity.††He has†over†20 years experience†as†a senior executive†with companies†including American Express and Ameriprise Financial, specializing in sales, client loyalty and customer service.†For more information, e-mail JohnBaker@ReadyThinking.com or visit http://www.theaskingformula.com/.