The Art of Execution – 12 Strategies For Building a Culture of Getting Things Done

In my years as a human resources executive, I often attended excellent conferences where I learned cutting edge ideas and wonderful new programs that I couldn’t wait to get back to the office to implement. I’d take copious notes, my imagination often wandering as I sparked new ideas that would lead our organization to new heights. Then reality would set in when I would return to the office only to discover mounds of work to be completed, 400 e-mails to respond to, and many fires that needed to be put out immediately. Sound familiar? Lack of time is just one reason leaders don’t execute in business, and it’s more common than you think.

Whatever the reason, execution is the greatest unaddressed issue in business today. The absence of execution is the biggest obstacle to success and often the greatest contributor to derailment of leaders. In the book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, the authors assert that leaders often think of execution as the tactical side of business, something they delegate while they focus on what are perceived as “bigger” issues. But execution is not just tactics-it is a discipline and a system.

Leadership is not just about creating great visions, strategies and plans. In my work with executives, I find the most successful leaders are those who hold themselves accountable as well as their employees. Leaders are not successful if they cannot execute the strategy. It’s like taking the time to plan a great vacation and then not taking the vacation. If you don’t go on the vacation, the planning was just wasted effort. Many organizations spend significant time strategizing and planning, and very little time emphasizing execution.

Building an execution culture is not as easy as it sounds. There are many building blocks that are necessary like reinforcing the organization’s values and understanding beliefs that influence specific behaviors in the company. However, there are some steps leaders can start implementing immediately to support better execution in the organization.

Below are twelve strategies for instilling a culture of execution in your organization:

Build accountability into meetings. How many meetings have you attended where people left without discussing who would be responsible for specific actions and by when? Begin each meeting by reviewing the status of projects or commitments from prior meetings. End each meeting by assigning specific tasks with completion dates. Assign someone to take notes and send out a recap to every member of the team.

Be realistic. Many strategies fail because leaders don’t make a realistic assessment of whether the organization can execute the plan. Involve the management team and operational employees to ensure the plans are realistic for where the organization is right now.

Focus on a few priorities. I’ve seen organizations with strategic plans that detail twenty large strategies for one year. Employees (and often the executives who developed the strategies) feel so overwhelmed, that they are either paralyzed and don’t take action, or do take action and fall seriously short. It’s better to do a few things well than a lot of things poorly. Focus on no more than six key strategies and ensure the entire organization keeps them top of mind.

Ensure employees understand priorities. This may sound simple, but my experience is that most employees are not brought into the loop about what is important to the organization. Leaders often have a strategic plan that is kept at the executive level. Make sure the strategies are broken down and shared with employees so they know the current absolute priorities of the business.

Set milestones. Break down every organizational project into specific milestones with action items and dates. Communicate these milestones to employees and review the status at each project meeting.

Use your business plan. Is your business plan collecting dust? Many organizations go through the motions of spending two days every year developing strategic and business plans, only to stick them in the bottom of the drawer untouched. Begin by writing your business plan in simple terms with specific actionable items. Get your employees involved in the process, and review the milestones at each team meeting.

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