One might think that the leadership in strategic execution is obvious and straight forward. For example, the role of leaders is to guide the organization in executing its strategies and achieving expected results. This seems so obvious. My mom often used the phrase, “It’s as obvious as the nose on your face” to describe things such as this. While this role of leaders seems evident, in practice it often does not work out that way. The research on the effectiveness of strategic execution initiatives finds that more than half do not deliver the results. In fact, some estimate the failure rate to be between 66% and 85%.
How come? Clearly, leadership is not getting the job done.
Donald Sull gives a common explanation used by leaders in this situation, “We had a good strategy, but lousy execution”. Sull calls this a “cop-out”, and goes on to assert that the problems begin with the strategies which were likely too complicated and not designed with execution in mind. I strongly agree with Don Sull on this point. Further, I assert that the dynamic begins with leadership accountability.
Let’s look at some examples.
Be a Strategic Thinker and Do Not Delegate
A common assumption is that most executives excel as strategic thinkers. I find that most executives excel as operational thinkers. By and large executives have outstanding knowledge about the financial and operational aspects of their business. They are usually hyper busy dealing with a myriad of operational issues. Many executives, however, are not particularly skilled in thinking strategically. You might ask, “But what about all the time which is spent developing the business strategies?” If you look closely you will see the focus is on operations, with an implicit assumption that the business in the future will look remarkably similar to how it has looked in the past. This explains why so many businesses are caught flat-footed when their markets change dramatically or disruptive technologies and innovative business models interrupt their industry.
I have observed that many executives outsource the strategic thinking by delegating staff work to others in the organization and / or dependending on external organizations. There is a subtle difference in engaging others to support framing the strategic questions and outsourcing the strategic thinking. Having groups in the company do staff work to develop data and knowledge is excellent practice, as is engaging external experts. The difference is in maintaining accountability for the thinking. When the executive has maintained organizational accountability for strategic thinking, there is a stimulating environment in which the internal and external parties can collaborate in powerful ways. If the executive does not maintain the organizational accountability for strategic thinking, a very different mood develops. Unease increases as this accountability and power vacuum becomes apparent. Ambitious individuals and organizations see the opportunity to grab power, and the positioning begins. The soap opera unfolds over time as the execution plans are developed and implemented. Of course, this dramatically increases the probability that the strategic execution will be flawed and ultimately fail.
Must Lead Change
Successful change does not happen simply because we wish it would. We cannot will it into existence. Nor can executives delegate the accountability for leading change. Instead, they must create organizational structures that empower accountability to assure the changes move through the predictable opposition and resistance. Leading change requires creating a vision for the change, establishing a strong sense of urgency for why change is needed, engaging a core of leaders, communicating powerfully, creating the right climate for change, coordinating activities, engaging stakeholders, maintaining momentum, dealing with surprises, and removing roadblocks. Executives must exercise the internal leadership needed to propel strategy information forward.
Often the group which requires the most attention from executives is middle management and supervisors. Most of these people have achieved their position and status in the company through their effectiveness in maintaining control. Strategic execution initiatives often alters these control structures, since this interruption is needed to promote growth. In the role of change leaders, executives need to pay attention to these middle managers and supervisors. Supporting these managers in making the changes will trigger a huge difference, as ultimately the change leader wants these managers to be effectively engaging others in the organization in making the changes. In organizations with hierarchical, top down management orientation, it is common for managers and supervisors to attempt to implement change through domination rather than enrollment. Needless to say, domination as a change method has very limited success.
Provide Credibility with Stakeholders
Strategic execution initiatives are an opportunity in which executives will enhance or lose credibility with the various stakeholders. Stakeholders is a term used to describe the various groups or individuals who believe they have “something at stake” in the behavior and success of an organization. Usually, there are a wide variety of stakeholders such as employees, customers, suppliers, investors, retirees, community leaders, politicians, and governmental officials. When the strategy being executed involves meaningful change, the various stakeholders will likely have differing opinions about the changes. How the executives provide leadership will determine whether they enhance or lose credibility with the various stakeholder groups.
Display Competence and Confidence
Growth companies require a lot of competence and confidence. This is why the caliber of leadership from top executives during strategy execution is so important. This includes leadership in strategic thinking and developing others as strategic thinkers. This involves eschewing conventional thinking, not for the sake of nonconformity, but because they are focused on the fundamental questions about the company’s strategies. These fundamental questions include how we can best execute our strategies.
Successful strategic execution initiatives require leadership from executives. They cannot be over-managed and under-led. Ultimately, change is needed by mid-level managers and supervisors to champion the execution rather than focus on controlling people. Success in engaging the various groups of stakeholders will enhance leadership’s credibility, as well as enhance support for the strategies being executed.
Leadership of strategic execution cannot be abrogated through delegation to others. It must be taken up by those in the positions to do so. This leadership accountability is essential for success.
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