Start an execution revolution at your company

Tags: business management

Companies frequently develop vision and mission statements about being No. 1 in their industry, the great service they provide to customers, and their rewarding work environment. Yet more often than not, these statements are so far from reality that they become joke fodder for customers and employees alike. It doesn’t have to be this way, says Richard Lepsinger. Your company really can keep the promises you make — but first you must create a culture of execution. 

“Creating a culture of execution begins with the knowledge that developing plans and strategic initiatives is just the starting point,” says Lepsinger, president of OnPoint Consulting ( and co-author (along with Dr. Gary Yukl) of Flexible Leadership: Creating Value by Balancing Multiple Challenges and Choices (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2004, ISBN: 0-7879-6531-6, $44.00). “It also requires adopting the mind-set that a highly skilled and engaged workforce — while important — will not ensure effective execution.

“Many leaders have a blind spot in this area. Either they believe that their job is setting the direction, and execution is the responsibility of lower-level managers, or they assume that if they clearly communicate an exciting vision of the future to an engaged work force, everything else will fall into place.”

A survey conducted by OnPoint Consulting shows how widespread the problem of ineffective execution is. Results show that almost half of those surveyed believe there is a gap between their organization’s ability to develop a vision and strategy and its ability to execute that strategy, and even more — 64 percent to be exact — lack confidence that the gap can be closed.

But Lepsinger insists that companies can make a conscious effort to close the execution gap. You simply have to take some tried and true steps to creating a “get it done” culture. For example:

Recognize that execution starts with a plan. “A solid plan can immensely improve the efficiency with which a project is carried out,” says Lepsinger. “It facilitates the organization and coordination of related work activities, prevents operational delays and bottlenecks in work processes, helps people avoid duplication of effort, and helps employees set priorities and meet deadlines. It also helps you prepare for potential problems before they happen so that one snag in the system doesn’t throw everyone completely off course. Remember that the best and most useful plans are flexible starting points that can be easily changed to address new needs or challenges as you encounter them.”

Ensure plans are aligned and coordinated across the organization. A common snafu at many organizations is that the head of one department will implement a new initiative without considering how it will affect the overall company or specific departments. When a New York-based mutual insurance and financial services company realized it wasn’t going to meet certain financial goals, division heads focused on cutting expenses in their individual departments. Unfortunately, they did not develop operational plans that were compatible across the organization or that helped coordinate the day-to-day activities required to achieve overall business objectives.  In fact, these individual cuts made it difficult to maintain support and service to internal customers.

“When the CEO became aware of the problem, he worked with his executive team to clarify cross-organizational initiatives that were priorities for the entire company,” says Lepsinger. “Then each divisional leader identified the specific cost reduction targets for his or her division that would support the achievement of the corporate objectives and initiatives while not inhibiting the ability of other departments to achieve their goals.”

Clarify, clarify, clarify. It’s often difficult to get things done because people don’t understand their role, responsibilities or what exactly is expected of them. One reason employees aren’t always clear on what they should be doing and when is because their manager assumed that they would understand what needs to be done. Another common problem is that managers fear they might insult an employee’s intelligence by stating what seems obvious to them. Finally, some leaders may simply believe they are too busy to spell things out, not realizing the possible consequences of failing to do so.

“Don’t underestimate the importance of taking time to make certain that everyone is on the same page and understands what needs to be done,” says Lepsinger. “Clearly communicating roles and responsibilities and checking for understanding is never a wasted effort.”

Establish clear expectations. Goals help everyone focus on important activities and responsibilities. They encourage people to find more efficient ways to do the work. And, they facilitate constructive performance feedback by ensuring that managers and direct reports or team members have a shared picture of expected outcomes. Setting specific performance goals or task objectives is also an important form of clarifying. Performance improves because specific objectives guide effort toward the most productive activities, and challenging objectives tend to energize a higher level of effort.

“Goals should be set even for those things that can’t be easily measured,” says Lepsinger. “It’s much easier to measure an improvement in sales than it is to measure an improvement in service quality or customer satisfaction. It’s important to remember that although some goals may be difficult to quantify, all goals can be verified. For example, you’ll know if you are meeting your service quality goals by looking at improvements in responsiveness, handling of problems, on-time performance, and availability of products. The only way to improve the way you’re doing things is to set clear, measurable goals and constantly monitor your success in those areas.”

Don’t micromanage your entrepreneurial-minded employees. But do monitor them. Your entrepreneurial-minded employees — those who take individual initiative and do an effective job without much direction from you — are the gems that make your company special. But just because you feel like you can let them loose with a project or client doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t follow up with them periodically. In fact, when you empower employees in this way, monitoring becomes even more important.

“As your employees take on new roles and responsibilities, they are using new skills, working in new arenas, and making and implementing decisions that can have a powerful effect on your organization’s success,” says Lepsinger. “You may be concerned they’ll think you’re micromanaging them if you’re keeping an eye on things. Don’t be. When done right, monitoring does not have to feel like micromanaging. Use it as an opportunity to recognize effective behavior, involve your employees in developing meaningful measures of performance, and get their feedback in determining the timing of periodic follow-up meetings. Then, your efforts will be valued by everyone involved.”

Encourage employees to openly share bad news. Getting information from employees can be easier said than done. If there is a problem, mistake or delay, they may be hesitant to inform you because they fear your reaction or think it will make them look incompetent. Even an employee who is not responsible for a problem may be reluctant to report it if he or she is concerned about being on the receiving end of an angry outburst. It’s essential to be careful about how you react to information concerning problems. (Said another way, don’t shoot the messenger!)

“Strive to always be constructive and non-punitive,” says Lepsinger. “When an employee presents you with bad news, express appreciation for the accurate information, no matter how negative it may be. Respond quickly to the problem with specific actions to deal with it. Help your employees learn from mistakes collectively rather than singling anyone out.”

Balance careful analysis of a problem and decisive action to solve it. Effective leaders move quickly to deal with a threat or problem. Nevertheless, they know they must make an accurate diagnosis of the problem and identify relevant remedies before taking action. Otherwise, they may end up implementing ineffective solutions or solving the wrong problem — both of which can make things worse instead of better.

“Leaders should always use a systematic, logical analysis to identify the cause of a problem before taking action,” says Lepsinger. “Great leaders know when additional information or analysis will only delay action without adding value. To facilitate a rapid, effective response, top performers anticipate potential problems and disruptions and develop contingency plans in advance.”

Make decisions as close to the action as possible. The key here is ensuring that decisions are being made where the best information is in order to increase speed and quality of responsiveness. It’s not uncommon for organizations to swing back and forth from centralizing work and processes to decentralizing as they try to deal with a strategic issue or competitive threat.

“Organizational redesign is not necessarily the best solution to a competitive or strategic problem,” says Lepsinger. “Leaders frequently find that the change just presents a different set of problems and issues. The key is to determine what processes and work would benefit from centralization or decentralization. In addition, if you want to improve the quality of your decisions and gain support for them, involve the people who are closest to the situation as well as those who will be affected by the decision.  Involvement at the early stage of the decision-making process ensures critical information surfaces in a timely manner and enhances people’s ownership of the ultimate outcome.”

Facilitate informal and spontaneous interaction among employees. Your employees’ informal relationships are key in getting things done. The ability to connect with a colleague “in the moment” when you have a problem or new information is essential for effective execution. In today’s fast-paced global businesses, it can be difficult to make these connections.

“When people are in the same location, it’s easier to arrange the work space so that employees can easily interact with one another on work and non-work topics,” says Lepsinger. “Employees in these organizations can meet up in a breakroom or kitchen area, but more and more frequently organizations have employees who are working all over the place, whether they’re out in the field or working from home. These global organizations use technology — virtual workspaces, video conferencing, instant messaging, electronic social networks — to provide proximity and access to a dispersed group of people.”

Turn your performance management system into a business tool. This system is one of the most important tools leaders have to ensure effective execution. It ensures goals are aligned across levels and work units, helps people know what they need to do and how they need to do it, and allows leaders to monitor progress toward goals. “When used effectively, it provides early warning when things are off course and allows time to get back on track,” says Lepsinger. “If, however, you view performance management only as an end-of-the-year review along with a form to fill out for human resources, then it isn’t going to help you get things done any more efficiently.”

“When you put these elements in place at your organization, you’ll see a general improvement in individual, team, and overall organizational ability to execute plans and initiatives,” says Lepsinger. “Your employees will start getting things done more easily and consistently, and these regular wins will encourage them and inspire them to redouble their efforts. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. They’ll get focused on being more efficient, retaining customers, responding and acting on customer feedback, and monitoring the quality of their work. One day you’ll look around and realize your mission statement actually rings true — and that’s one of the best feelings you’ll ever have as a leader.”

About OnPoint Consulting:

OnPoint Consulting is an organizational and leadership consulting firm that specializes in helping companies close the gap between the creation and communication of their vision and strategy and the achievement of their business objectives. 

OnPoint combines practical, research-based tools and models, state-of-the-art business simulations, action learning, and in-depth experience across industries to deliver high-quality and high-impact leadership and organizational development initiatives. OnPoint’s solutions are designed to reflect each client’s organizational culture and business environment. 

OnPoint’s organizational assessments provide practical, actionable data to help drive execution and enhance organizational performance. The firm provides value-added analysis and interpretation, along with customized approaches to help its clients translate issues into action.

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