A few years ago, I observed Dr. John Lechleiter, recently retired CEO of Eli Lilly and Company, being interviewed on a local television channel. The interviewer was exploring Dr Lechleiter’s secret to success over his career as a senior leader of a large pharmaceutical corporation. The conversation moved to a discussion on strategy. I paraphrase Dr Lechliter’s response. He said that one of his leadership lessons was that “strategy just needs to be good enough, but execution is everything”. This is not to say that the big picture strategy is not important, but to acknowledge that poor execution will quickly unravel the best laid out strategy.
This topic is timely because many employees and leaders are concluding their objective setting process for 2017. As a former leader at Eli Lilly and Company and now as a consultant and executive coach, I would like to share a few perspectives.
How can leaders create the focus needed in an organization to deliver against higher level and lower level objectives? What can leaders do to mitigate against poor execution?
I see this as a 3 Step Process, and all involve engaging with people at the right level.
Step 1 – Get People on the Same Page
There needs to be clear alignment on “what is important” in the business. Higher level business strategy needs to be translated into meaningful objectives and communicated at the appropriate level in the organization. Remaining flexible to the changing business environment and making suitable adjustments is important. Leaders need to engage with staff and make sure they focus on a few top priority items that will advance the mission of the organization. Those focus areas need to translate to action items that have clear ownership with outcomes that are measurable. Ideally, people will feel challenged and leverage their strengths, which in turn, will enhance their own personal development.
What are the Red Flags?
- Too many objectives being set or failing to condense higher level strategic objectives into truly important focus areas and action plans.
- Vague objectives & action plans that are not measurable.
- Objectives that sound like a job description.
Step 2 – Coach People
Executing strategy is about getting things done through people. It goes beyond talk. Leaders must stay connected with their staff or those empowered to execute against strategy. . Frequent, short coaching sessions to see how things are progressing are particularly helpful. Then get involved at the right level. Key questions to explore include:
- How is your project progressing?
- What obstacles are you experiencing?
- What do you need from me?
Depending on the situation, people may need a simple sounding board. Or, they may need additional “how to” guidance. That may need to be coached about how to re-prioritize low value work in favor of meeting key objectives. They may need to be coached on how to say “no” to other requests for work and how to influence others. Ultimately, leaders are accountable and need to make sure that people who own key projects or action plans are also help accountable and feel supported.
What are the Red Flags?
- Projects falling behind.
- People are overwhelmed.
- A build-up of stress in individuals or across the organization.
- Visible lack of cross functional collaboration.
- Leaders doing the work in place of those who own the work.
Step 3 – Help People over the Finish Line
I have observed one major obstacle largely through experience. It seems to me that, close to implementation, the world often conspires against us to test our resolve. Just when we think everything is ready to go, suddenly, new requirements emerge, someone in senior management has a “concern”, or another important project emerges. Whatever it is, there is a temptation to stop and re-consider the initiative and “lose focus”.
Leaders need to help people understand this challenge and intervene as appropriate. This is where having a bias for action is critical. Whatever the obstacle, it needs to be tackled head on. Sometimes, people need to simply understand that extra effort is required to get something concluded and executed. I often use the “end-point” concept. A project completion date is set and work will get organized around that “end-point”. Priorities and obstacles are tackled to ensure compliance with the “end-point”
What are the Red Flags?
- Projects not getting executed or delayed.
- Excuses abound.
- The prevalence of people playing the “blame game”.
- A sudden loss of accountability.
Ultimately execution is about people. Making sure that the right people focus on a narrow set of key priorities. From there, leaders must coach people to help them to remain focused and provide them the support needed to execute. Finally, learning from mistakes and rewarding and recognizing good performance will ensure the right execution culture will grow in the organization.
I help mid-large manufacturing and financial businesses reach new heights of leadership and financial excellence.