Do as I Say Not as I Do: An Ode to Strategy Execution Failure

Jan 24, 2019

By Kevin Martin

Decades of i4cp research has shown that the alignment of executive behavior to strategy is the factor with greatest impact on an organization's ability to drive consistently high market performance. Our research also shows that the gap between the importance of strategy execution and the effectiveness of organizations to actually execute their strategy has continued to widen over the past four years.

Myriad factors contribute to this failing, including external elements such as changes in the markets an organization serves,  internal missteps such as poorly designed strategies that cannot be supported by the culture of the organization, and ill-equipped, misaligned talent. However, one factor touches upon most—if not all—of those elements, and is arguably the greatest influence on whether or not strategy is executed successfully: the organization's executive leadership.

To add further anecdotal credence to my point, all I need to do is open my dog-eared copy of Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan's bestselling book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. In it, Larry says, “Many people regard execution as detail work that's beneath the dignity of a business leader. That's wrong. To the contrary, it's a leader's most important job.” This quote cuts through the clutter and questions the competence of any business executive who doesn't actually lead.

We all know—some of us more than others unfortunately—that culture will kill strategy any day of the week. Whether your organization seeks to create or sustain a culture that is agile, performance-driven or innovative, the behavior of your leaders will either stifle or ignite the culture you desire.

Leaders at the top of the organization set the tone. They win the commitment of the organization by making a compelling case for the strategy, modeling the actions and behaviors necessary to successfully execute the strategy, and keeping the organization focused on the desired objectives and outcomes.

As important as top leaders are, another level of leadership is critical to successful strategy execution (and market performance)—the behavior of middle managers. Middle managers translate the strategy into specific actions, adjust the plan in response to on-the-ground realities, leverage informal networks and knowledge about how to get things done, and engage and align employees with the strategy. However, from whom do these managers get their cues, and whom do they seek to model? Those at the top.

In my very early twenties, as a newly minted manager for a company that sold household kitchen products, I had the good fortune to witness and learn from a CEO who, through his actions, was able to inspire a company to achieve execution excellence. Only about six months with the company, I was invited, along with a dozen or so other managers, to an executive retreat at the headquarters of our parent company. I witnessed the CEO parking his car in the rear of the company parking lot—his parking space had been dedicated to the employee of the month, a long-standing tradition he instituted—bypass the executive offices and walk right into the production plant. For the next 45 minutes, he walked around greeting and talking with many of the production workers. In fact, he knew them all by name, asked about their families or personal things he knew of those workers, before he finally walked into the headquarters.

This, I learned, was his daily routine. Once inside the headquarters, he greeted all of us with the warmth of a surrogate grandparent and proceeded to share his vision for the company and how we all played a role in making that vision come to life. Later that night, we all were invited to his home, where he and his wife prepared dinner, introduced us to their family, and got to know us as individuals. That experience has remained with me for the past 25 years, and helped shape the type of leader I aspire to be. By the way, that company achieved consistent double-digit growth for many years.

i4cp's research has consistently shown the characteristics of organizations that successfully execute strategy and achieve high market performance.

To learn more about effective strategy execution, consider these AMA seminars on Strategic Planning.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Martin is chief research and marketing officer at i4cp.