In the epic Mahabharata, there is a story about Guru Dronacharya testing his students in archery. Dronacharya set up a wooden bird upon a tree, and from across the adjacent river, asked the princes to shoot it down by striking its eye. When prince Duryodhana tried first, Dronacharya asked him what he saw. Duryodhana replied that he saw the blue sky, the green tree, the brown branch and the colourful bird. Dronacharya asked the other students and he got the same answer. He then asked his favourite student, Arjuna. Arjuna stepped forth and said he could only see the eye of the bird and nothing else. Drona asked him to shoot, and Arjuna struck the bird down, in the eye.
We all know the importance of a laser focus on execution that Arjuna demonstrated.
Time and again, if we look at our mistakes – it is not the “what” in which we faltered, it is the “how”. The common refrain you will hear is that we did not get the execution right. Clichéd as it may sound, simply put, it is execution that makes the difference.
As the speed of change and competitive intensity increases, getting execution right is becoming more and more critical.
Being clear about our goals, being fully committed and accountable, translating the goals to everyday tangible actions to produce high quality results and being agile is not only necessary but core to our present and future success.
And it is not just about execution. It is about executing better than anyone else. So, my message this week is on execution excellence and the critical role that it plays in our ultimate success as an organisation. And how do you get yourself and your teams members to do this consistently.
In fact, execution is something we have been talking about a lot at Godrej — for instance, the need to get last mile excellence right to deliver stronger results. As leaders, all of us realise the value of execution; nevertheless, improving it remains a challenge. There are different reasons for this. It could be that further improvement is linked with working longer hours. Many of us are already extremely busy and have a lot on our plates, and finding extra hours might seem like a Herculean task. Another is that everyone across our organisation may not be on the same page when it comes to the top-priority status of getting things done, all the way down to the finish line. In a study conducted by Harvard Business Review, senior managers ranked execution first on a list of various skills, while others ranked it fourth — behind abilities like inspiring, motivating, and problem solving.
Clearly, there can sometimes be a disconnect about the paramount importance of execution excellence. To add to that, implementation and execution are not the same. And this is not always a distinction that ends up being made. Implementation refers to doing what we need in order to turn a strategy into reality. Execution is the next step: the actions we take to turn an implemented strategy into business success. In other words, it’s about producing superior and tangible results.
Fortunately, there are a number of realistic, sustainable ways to foster an execution culture. Here are my top suggestions:
1. Focus and clarity
Certainly, there are a lot of different things that our teams have to do every day. Teams often have competing priorities. And that can end putting the team at cross-wires and getting pulled in different directions. A few months back, Aaron Radomsky had authored a great #monday8am post (https://monday8amlive.wpengine.com/use-your-time-effectively-co-authored-by-aaron-radomsky/) on how to prioritise better and think more systematically about the urgent versus the important. Remember, strong execution is about focus and being clear about things that matter more than than the others. It is about putting in disproportionate effort in areas that will deliver the greatest impact.
In 2010, Apple CEO, Tim Cook (he was COO back then) had remarked:
“We are the most focused company that I know of or have read of or have any knowledge of. We say no to good ideas every day. We say no to great ideas in order to keep the amount of things we focus on very small in number so that we can put tremendous energy behind the ones we do choose. The table each of you is sitting at today, you could probably put every product on it that Apple makes, yet Apple’s revenue last year was $40B”.
Very powerful words indeed. Superior execution starts with picking a few things and investing a greater level of your team’s energy and effort behind those.
2. Organise, organise, organise
You’re excited about starting the execution phase, brimming with energy and the desire to win. But do you have a plan? Remember, last mile excellence is a marathon, not a sprint. To sustain the drive and achieve your goals, you need to take a step back and get organised before jumping into action. Make a plan, assemble the right people, and gather the resources you need. Once these are in place, assign clear responsibilities. As the saying goes, ‘When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.’ Each person should know what they are accountable for within the overall blueprint—this provides a sense of direction and ownership, both of which are integral to execution success.
3. Define lead measures and a scoreboard
Put in place clear measures – ideally those that you can look at daily or weekly to help you assess how you are doing versus your goals. Generally, most teams look at lag measures. Those are certainly useful in outlining if you have achieved the goal. However, more importantly, define lead measures. These are measures that you can influence and that will tell you how likely you are to achieve the goal. What you may find useful is to then put the lead and lag measures on some sort of visual scoreboard so that the team members have a clear sense of where they are and where should be.
4. Aim for the stars—with a due date
After assessing thousands of leaders and teams, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman realised that setting stretch goals was a common driver of exceptional execution success. In their Harvard Business Review article, 4 Ways to Be More Effective at Execution, they also explain the value of adding deadlines to these ambitious targets: ‘Setting stretch goals helps the group achieve their objectives and generates greater engagement and satisfaction in team members. To push the group to achieve those goals, pair them with deadlines. While we may not like it, when someone gives us a deadline, our behaviour changes. Simply setting deadlines for goals and objectives goes a long way toward achieving those goals and objectives! If you resist setting stretch goals for your team, start by asking your team questions like, “What would it take to accomplish this goal two weeks earlier?”’
At the same time, it’s important to exercise some restraint and ensure inclusion in the decision-making process. Unrealistic targets and excessive pushing chip away at the trust between leaders and their teams, harming execution in the long run. Involve your team in the process of setting goals and timelines—respecting their input and gaining buy-in fosters a sense of ownership, commitment, and excitement.
5. Don’t hold back on praise
Another common denominator amongst execution experts is their attention to feedback, particularly positive feedback. If goals and deadlines are essential, motivation is the secret ingredient. And nothing motivates a person more than recognition of their contributions.
Zenger and Folkman emphasise effective feedback skills: ‘Specifically, the leaders who rate most highly are those who deliver critical feedback by taking the time to listen to and understand their employees’ perspectives, rather than simply dropping a difficult message on someone and ending the conversation as quickly as possible. But where we really saw a major difference was with positive feedback. Specifically, we found that leaders who are great at execution give a lot more positive recognition. Our research indicates that while giving a little more recognition did not affect execution, being above the 65th percentile on this skill had a major impact.’
So, the takeaway is simple: as leaders, we must make it a habit to appreciate the contributions and achievements of others. Be genuine, specific, and personal. Above all, be generous with your praise.
6. Build intra-team trust
Did you know peer pressure can be a good thing? In the most high-performing execution teams, motivation comes not just from the leader but also from team members. Teams that have clear goals, responsibilities and deadlines, combined with an environment of all-around positive feedback, are primed for success. As leaders, we can help our teams raise the bar on performance by resolving conflict and creating trust.
Differences and conflict can hold groups back from achieving their full potential — I am sure all of you have experienced such situations during your careers. Ironing out these seemingly-soft issues is essential to build trust and a constructive (rather than destructive) culture. Take the time to talk to your people, understand the issues at hand, and work with them to come up with real resolutions. Think of yourself as a negotiator: the best negotiators focus on finding win-win solutions that are acceptable to all parties. Overcoming clashes effectively helps create trust and positive expectations amongst peers — you know your team believes in you, supports you, and expects the best from you. What better motivator to prove yourself?
7. Create a cadence of accountability
In their great book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution (a must read for those you who are looking for a tangible blueprint for execution), Chris McChesney et al talk about creating a cadence of accountability. In spite of their best intentions, teams will not give their best efforts unless they are clear on what they are accountable for. The authors suggest running regular sessions (weekly or more often), where team members reinforce their personal commitment to driving the lead measures for achieving the goal. The session should not run for more than 20 to 30 minutes. The authors suggest that the session should cover three things: a) Each team member reports on the progress they have made versus their commitments, b) Review the overall scorecard on how team is doing on the lead measures and c) Each team member makes commitments for the following week. You can also use these sessions to celebrate small wins and correct lapses. The structure and discipline that these sessions can bring can be very powerful.
Achieving execution excellence is not easy. It takes discipline, courage, confidence and persistence. Do take some time today to think though and and try out some of these ideas. I look forward to hearing from you about what works well for you and your team. If you have any suggestions on how we can work together to deliver even stronger business results, do share them.