Without the execution of a strategy, ideas are just thoughts with potential value.
The holy grail for all leadership teams and CEOs is to be lauded by shareholders and peers as sustained value creators. As most of us know this circle is small, from Jim Collins’ research for his book Good to Great only 11 leadership teams appeared out of hundreds and in a recent publication by Bain & Company, only ONE in ELEVEN companies are sustained value creators.
What gets in the way?
It is never just one thing. On the one hand, the number of inter-dependencies that need to align makes the business of turning vision statements and BHAGs into working strategies is complex. On the other hand, doing this requires that the CEO and their leadership team learn how to do simple duties tenaciously and consistently. Some of you may baulk at the word duty, perhaps it sounds old fashioned. However, consider for a moment two definitions: moral or legal obligation; a responsibility and a task or action that one is required to perform as part of one’s job.
When a leadership team accepts other people’s money, it has a moral obligation to aim to return it with added value, and this requires that each member takes actions and performs their job to the best of their abilities.
I have coached hundreds of executives who have lost sight of this simple contract; many had lost their personal vision and had become beleaguered by politics and change. For this reason, Jim Collins’ question “are the right people on the bus?” is the foundation question that every senior leader needs to ask when they begin their quest to join the inner circle of Sustained Value Creators.
When a CEO is too “soft” on who is on the bus
“Of all the complex, sensitive, and stressful issues that confront CEOs, none consumes as much time, generates as much angst, or extracts such a high personal toll as dealing with executive team members who are just not working out. Billion-dollar acquisitions, huge strategic shifts, even decisions to eliminate thousands of jobs—all pale in comparison with the anxiety most CEOs experience when it comes to deciding the fate of their direct reports.”
Yaron Nili, Co-editor, HLS Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial
Too often, I have seen the slow-death of strategy execution caused by direct reports that refuse to get on the bus, choosing instead to torpedo the others on the C-Team who are trying to make the strategy a reality.
I have listened to distressed conversations that focus on the qualities of a person, their history and the time they have put into the company, as mitigating the harm they are doing. Helping CEOs face this particular challenge is not easy because the reasons they use seem so plausible. As a coach in these cases, my role is to shine a light on what is obvious to everyone else.
Having the right people on the bus makes the process of creating Vision, Mission, Values, and Strategy more effective because a team that is committed to problem-solving and possesses the discipline to set egos aside will always succeed.
The right people need time together
Vision, Mission, Values, and Strategy are interrelated elements of a narrative that will eventually drive long term motivation and change throughout the company. Creating this narrative takes time, and there are no short cuts, nor should a CEO look for short cuts, because the process itself generates strong bonds and emotional buy-in that makes long-term success more likely.
Teams that do this well create a workspace that allows for rigorous debate. Everything needs to be on the table; challenging and debating ensure decisions are understood deeply, at a level that enables each member of the leadership team to retell the narrative authentically. How often have you visited a company and spoke with executives who can’t recite all of the values, let alone convince you why they are vital to the success of their business? This is a clear sign that too little time has been spent resolving issues and building a narrative that describes the future and the culture being built. Without this time there is no way to build the conviction needed to succeed.
Great leadership requires conviction; this is a measure of commitment that is critical to a leader’s success with their followers. The science is irrefutable; humans are wired to crave certainty. When leaders offer a sense of certainty through the conviction they show for the vision, this helps relieve the symptom uncertainty creates, namely fear. This fear mechanism is part of our primitive brain, useful in stopping us from being eaten by a sabre-tooth-tiger, not so useful where uncertainty rules and important decisions must be made every day with minimal information.
How can you build a conviction?
A little psychology: Conviction is a firmly held belief. We all possess a ‘belief engine’; our brain is always seeking to build meaning and understanding from the information it is processing. When we construct a belief, we seek out explanations that rationalise our beliefs; this is how we become invested in our beliefs and how we develop our convictions.
Developing a conviction about the future requires leaders to step away from the present, with all of its constraints and, step into the future they want to create. They need to create a story, rich in imagery, that explains why it is important, why it is worth creating, and the benefits it will bring to all stakeholders. Building genuine beliefs about the future is both a cognitive and an emotional process that helps leaders develop their convictions, which in turn will help the team maintain alignment with their shared vision.
“Prioritizing execution requires you to think of your business strategy a living, evolving entity, meaning you’ll routinely revisit, reanalyze and make updates based on how things are going in real-time. In other words, you’ll be able to course-correct more frequently with better results.”
Aviva Leebow Wolmer CEO of Pacesetter
Create Good Urgency
Turning vision, mission, values and strategies into an actionable plan require hundreds of decisions, some you will decide together, but ultimately it will require hundreds of thousands of decisions made at all levels in the business.
How do you know you are getting it right outside of the numbers?
When there is an absence of fear and the presence of good urgency. Remember what Kotter had to say about good urgency, “A higher rate of urgency does not imply ever-present panic, anxiety, or fear. It means a state in which complacency is virtually absent.”John P. Kotter
Five duties that improve strategic execution
Someone once wrote, “fear is the enemy”, and according to Inc.com, the greatest enemy in the way of happy and productive workforces around the world is, fear-based management practices. Fear is an insidious enemy that creeps into the workplace through poor leadership practices, such as a “copy me in” request on work that is the responsibility of a direct report, or language that diminishes issues, team members or customers creating us and them mindsets.
The opposite of fear is confidence and trust. When leaders hold the belief that no one in their team comes to work to make mistakes or do a poor job deliberately, they can focus on practices that build each person’s confidence that they are capable and trusted. Give everyone the information and the support they need to succeed, and when mistakes, failures or unforeseen issues show up, employ the wisdom of curiosity rather than the folly of blame.
Changing anything is a challenge if it depends on humans changing their behaviour. Change management, and the stages people have to go through from shock to renewal is well documented.
Great leaders approach change by engaging all the stakeholders. Firstly they communicate the vision, mission, values and strategy and then ask people to collaborate to create the future. People will still have emotional reactions. However, collaboration offers them the opportunity to participate in creating new ways of working and gives them control over how they accomplish the changes.
Act and Learn:
Forbes claims, active-learning with a growth mindset is a skill that is critical for success. Studies show that people who understand how to maintain a growth mindset can achieve more. Building a growth-mindset is a learnable skill that provides leaders with a platform to transform coaching into genuine performance enhancement sessions.
Building a culture that rewards risk means building leadership practices that accept failures. When a leader reacts negatively to the results of a team member taking a risk, there is the potential to set the culture back towards fear. Great leaders challenge their people to find solutions and take risks, relabeling failures as learning and pushing people to find answers. Remember Edison’s journey to the light bulb took over 1000 filament configurations, he did not fail once; he invented the light bulb.
Risk-taking helps to build an organisational capability to challenge the status quo, which can deliver sustainable and highly valuable results.
Purpose gives people a license to drive for better performance. The vision describes the future you are building, and the purpose or mission, tells people why their work today means something. Imagine working for one of these companies. How inspired would you feel if your manager reminded you every day how your work contributed to the mission?
Disney inspires people with “we are here to make people happy”,
Kickstarter: To help bring creative projects to life.
Tesla: To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
Life is Good: To spread the power of optimism.
Look for ways to thank everyone for contributing to the mission, doing this reinforces that you value everyone’s input and over time people will respond by giving more discretionary effort. Who knows you might overhear someone on your team talking about your business in the same way the NASA janitor spoke about his role when talking to a visitor; “I send men to the moon.” he replied to the question, what do you do here? Reminding people of the mission and thanking them for their efforts may seem unimportant, but it put men on the moon and, today this leadership practice is fueling the new space race to Mars.
The benefits of having clarity of vision, mission, values and strategy:
How MGL can help
|Back to the Future||Vision Panel – Vision, Values, Strategy|
|Leadership Mindsets||Stretch – Executive Support|
|Build both sides|