Chances are that your company, like many others, start each year with inspiring strategy presentations and ambitious plans. Teams are reshuffled, new roles are created and people are rallied to focus on a new strategy.
It’s just as likely that despite every good intention and excitement, deadlines are missed, plans are forgotten, people are disappointed and by the end of first quarter your new strategy is lost to the wind.
If you can relate to this, you’re not alone.
Two styles of strategy execution
Getting yourself to follow through on your own plans is tricky enough, getting others to follow through is whole different animal, especially if that animal happens to be your ambiguous strategic plan.
I got the idea for writing this article from one my favourites books on Strategy – The 4 Disciplines of Execution. It’s a master class in strategy execution. Right at the beginning the authors introduce two styles of strategy execution.
The first style is called Stroke-of-the-pen, where leaders rely on using brute force to get people to follow through. The second style of execution replaces micromanagement and hierarchies with Behavioural change.
I got inspired to explore the latter. In this article I’m going to focus on what you, the leader, can do to enable and facilitate your team to follow through on your shared strategic ambitions.
Poor execution is a universal problem
Strategies are created, communicated, kick-started and forgotten. It’s happened to me and I’ve seen other leaders struggle with it year after year. Each year the same problems show up and each year they’re brushed under the carpet only to have them show up again the next year.
In my experience this challenge with strategy execution is universal. It shows up in almost every business, in every industry and every region around the world.
I believe it’s time to do something about it.
Ideas are useless. Execution is everything.John Doerr
No matter how smart you are or how detailed your plan is, unless your team willingly commits to it – as in really own it as their own – it’s not going to go much further than a powerpoint deck.
Your biggest enemy in getting yourself and others to follow through on plans is your everyday responsibilities aka the Whirlwind. It’s frighteningly easy to get bogged down or carried away by it. I’ve experienced it first hand and it’s frustrating to say the least.
Let’s be clear. Your whirlwind is essential. It’s how you get your most urgent work done. But if that’s all you end up doing then you’re not going to make much progress with your most important work.
If you ignore the urgent it’ll kill you today. It’s also true that if you ignore the important it’ll kill you tomorrow.4DX – McChesney, Covey & Huling
As a team leader the most invaluable skill to learn is knowing how to tell your whirlwind apart from your strategic goals.
As always you start with yourself and then start helping your team do the same. This often leads to the second challenge – behaviour change.
Avoid the urge to become more productive
I’ve often caught myself trying to deal with my whirlwind by attempting to become more productive. In other words trying to do more things. You might also feel inclined to do that but don’t. Trying to be productive is damaging when you’re learning to focus on getting your most important work done despite your whirlwind.
Getting your most important work done right requires focus. Instead of doing more things you need to start doing the right things. In other words you need to become more effective.
The solution that worked best for me was using the Eisenhower Matrix. It’s an easy to use time management technique that’s become my default method for managing how and where I invest my time. I’ve made a worksheet in Google Drive based on the matrix that you’re welcome to use.
Getting people to change their behaviour
If you’ve ever been in a position where you’ve had to ask someone to change their behaviour you know how impossible that can be. It doesn’t matter if it’s your spouse, your closest friend or your children, people always resist change. Even when it’s good for them!
Getting yourself and people you work with to change the way they approach work is our second challenge.
Micromanagement is mismanagement.John Doerr
While management tools such as OKRs can be effective but they won’t take you very far on their own. Getting people to change the way they approach their most important work despite their whirlwind is no small task. To do it right you start by creating an environment that nourishes the right activities and behaviours.
Skills you need for overcoming the odds
Whether it’s the whirlwind or sandbagging that puts in the last nail, these challenges are real. You’re doomed to see your strategic plan forgotten or half-heartedly followed unless you overcome these odds.
Research shows that only one in seven employees can even name one of their organisation’s most important goals. That’s 15% of employees who can’t even name one of the strategic objectives their leaders have identified!*
Overcoming these odds starts with you. You can keep your strategy from derailing by committing to improving these three skills.
- Clarity of communication
- Personal commitment
- Personal accountability
The best type of advice not only tells you what you need to improve but also shows you how. These TED talks contain invaluable advice on skills that can help us get better at creating and communicating our ideas so others would listen and commit to them.
Clarity of communication
Talk Nerdy to Me – Melissa Marshal
Melissa Marshal shares her experiences of teaching a communication class to engineering student and quickly succumbing to the nerdy jargon. Looking back at her experience she delivers a masterclass in how we can improve the way we communicate so that others would not only listen but understand.
Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler.Albert Einstein
My main takeaway is that ideas can change the world but only if we can get others to understand why they matter. Keep it simple and use stories, examples, anecdotes because they’re a lot more powerful than overly technical jargon.
10 ways to have a better conversation – Celeste Headlee
Celeste Headlee argues that our personal opinions and biases play a critical role in how we perceive others and especially how we make decisions.
Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand. We listen with an intent to reply.Steven Covey
My main takeaway from this TED Talk is a reminder that the greatest respect we can show to others is give them our undivided time and attention. It goes without saying but as a leader you have to give respect first before you can receive it in return.
5 ways to listen better – Julian Treasure
Julian Treasure is one of my all time favourite speakers. His talks on communication are filled with practical advice and exercises. In this TED Talk he advises us to practice conscious listening. Conscious listening happens when we don’t only listen but also retain information that’s shared with us. This can be an exceptional skill for any leader considering that 60% of the time spent in conversation is spent listening while only 25% of what we hear is retained!
My main takeaway from this TED Talk is the formula he shared for getting most out of our conversations i.e. Receive, Appreciate, Summarise & Ask or RASA.
How to build and rebuild trust – Francis Frei
This is one of the most powerful TED Talks you will listen to on this topic. Francis Frei explores what it takes to establish trust. She also shares examples from her time at Uber where she was tasked to re-establish trust after a series of public disasters. Her message is to acknowledge that trust is the foundation for everything we do and what others might do for us.
I took away two lessons from this TED Talk; 1) start a conversation with my main point and then deliver relevant supporting evidence and 2) be who you are because people can tell when we’re not being authentic.
How great leaders inspire action – Simon Sinek
This list wouldn’t be complete without Simon Sinek. Although you might have seen this TED Talk several times, it pays off to revisit it from time to time. He argues that great leaders inspire action by getting people to believe in what they believe.
My main takeaway from his talk is a reminder that a passionate leaders inspires people to want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. People put their sweat, blood and tears when they believe in something far more than when they’re simply getting paid to do a job.
Listen, learn… then lead – Stanley McChrystal
Stanley McChrystal, a former four-star general, talks about the importance of commitment and taking responsibility for the people who work with you.
My main takeaway from this TED Talk is to create a shared sense of understanding and purpose across my team. Especially when things get tough and difficult decisions need to be made, a shared sense of understanding will propel you and your team much further than any bureaucratic process .
How to build a company where the best ideas win – Ray Dalio
There’s no one better to give a lesson in embracing personal accountability than Ray Dalio. He recommends that instead of thinking that you’re right, leaders should be more interested in figuring our how can they know they’re right. He argues that creating algorithmic systems can help us remove ambiguity from decision making. In his talk he also shows how radical candor and openness are practiced at his investment firm.
My main takeaway is that the best way to create an environment where meritocracy flourishes is to embrace accountability. Instead of hiding your mistakes, leaders should openly embrace them, analyse them and share their lessons.
Why is it worth listening to people who disagree with you. – Zachary R. Wood
Self-reflection is a challenging skill to master but it’s by far the most important one. Good emotional intelligence is a hallmark of good leadership. Zachary R. Wood stresses the importance of seeking out opposing opinions. He believes that the best way to truly understand something we need to genuinely listen and honestly understand opposing point of views.
My main takeaway: To truly promote openness and accountability leaders need to encourage people to share opposing opinions and ideas. That’s also the best way to establish mutual respect and build empathy.
The listening bias – Tony Salvador
Tony Salvador argues that the same message can be received differently by people depending on their preconceptions. He uses the example of team building exercise to demonstrate how our unwillingness to detach from our own preconceptions can lead to miscommunication. He calls the difference between what we hear and what we understand the listening gap. His suggestion is for leaders to be aware of this gap when communicating to people they work with.
My main takeaway is a reminder that as a leaders despite my seniority or even often more experience I must keep myself accountable to listening to what people are saying not what I want to hear.
How you do one thing is how you do everything.Anonymous
Your strategy is doomed to get forgotten or poorly executed if you don’t first help your team differentiate between their most urgent and most important work. Once you’re able to manage your whirlwind, the next step is to enable people to get into the habit of approaching their work differently.
This is easier said than done. Building a culture that celebrates results and accomplishments starts with you. As a leader you can move the odds in your favour by committing to clear communication, personal commitment and accountability.
*The 4 Disciplines of Execution – Authors McChesney C., Covey S. & Huling J.