Riding the Wave of Success, then the environment shifts

When was the last time you and your executive team looked in the mirror at yourselves?

Vision, Strategy and Execution…what needs to happen within an organization to ensure its people are enabled — and capable of executing?  Why does most execution fail? Execution’s problems have yet to be resolved successfully in North America because synergies between Vision, Strategy and Execution remain a primary business challenge.

At PEO, we’ve heard hundreds of leaders describe this fundamental problem with comments like, “We’ve been executing our strategic objectives with mediocre performance.”   Or: “We’ve been lucky with the economic environment – until 2 years ago.” It’s so puzzling: one executive  said:   “There have been no real breakthroughs in our performance even though we’ve hired the smartest people and our vision is timeless and reflects what we want to be.”

In all of these cases, the strategic objectives are set and aligned and most importantly the companies identified reasonable short-term goals to achieve three-year objectives.  Let us review our findings on what they have missed.

The two key assumptions for a CEO and a strong Executive Team is based on their own unique view, that is their vision/strategy/execution within their roles and responsibilities. The CEO’s responsibility is the organization’s future– reinforcing the vision, resetting when necessary, and creating a path to move on the journey   The CEO spends countless hours revisiting his vision – in fact great leaders ensure all decisions and communications align with their vision. In their communication, the vision should be continuously clear.  Nor must the ‘why,’ its rationale ever be forgotten.

Than and only then together, the CEO and Executive Team create the organization’s strategic objectives – really looking at what needs to be done to ensure everyone is continually marching towards the vision.   The team’s strategic objectives are typically relevant for three-five years and cannot be reached with the current people, reward systems and organizational structure. Like the CEO, the executive team is great at communicating to the organization – they are patient, understanding they must spend hours working on the objectives: the ‘why’ is never left out in the communication.   The goals/tactics are well defined and aligned to the strategic objectives.  They are short in duration, typically less than a year, and are constantly reviewed and adapted to continue moving towards strategic objectives.

Strong teams believe Superior Strategy, Execution and Corporate Performance are the result of certain conditions that must be present. These include teams taking on challenging goals and accountability to each other — and a receptivity to change incorporating a desire for innovation that produces high quality solutions. Leaders must also make decisions with significant collaboration by trusting one another and sharing constructively. That’s what excellent execution is all about.

PEO’s Findings based on first-hand experience

Most leaders believe executive teams and their organizational culture are working.  They carry out 360s, performance reviews and measure engagement.  They understand all the puzzle pieces and believe they’ve got it right. But when they perform poorly, they are slow to react and rarely consider whether they are still heading towards the timeless vision.  Something is amiss.

Here is an example:  the CEO determines the organization will build out the company geographically.  The VP of Strategy and the executive team spend hours determining the strategy and what immediate goals must be made over the next year.  Once completed they explain the strategy and actions to the employees – they take the necessary time – they even answer the questions…BUT…What happens? The employees go out and become what Roger Martin has called Choiceless Doers.   No options…just following orders.  Does that sound familiar? Avoidance sets in – why should anyone tell the boss that the strategy doesn’t make sense? Instead, it’s easier to keep heads down.  The result is to be expected – employees continually return to comfort zones – conventional thinking.  These attributes work counter to the identified ideal behaviours and attitudes.

We have learned in our continuing discussions with top executives at PEO: very few understand how to drive needed behavioural changes. Stating the desired attitudes comes easily, but not the road map. When was the last time you fully understood the outlooks driving your organization? When was the last time you examined the attitudes and performance within your executive team?

A 360 fails to accomplish this. It’s not performance related. Engagement scores also do not identify the barriers to improvement. The solution lies in effecting real change in the leader and his team’s behaviour. These ripple through the organization.  This time it’s about how the ‘why’ around strategy is communicated and what people believe it means to them.

Change must start from the top. Change must be collaborative but it begins in the C suite and filters its way down. No one else can do it.  What leaders do impacts 60% of an organization’s culture. It starts with the top group’s influence on the executive team. It must permeate every corner of the organization before it gets to those who must carry it out. That is the separation between vision, strategy and execution. Bring them closer together and there is success. Separate them and vision does not matter at all nor does strategy. To paraphrase that famous political war cry: it’s the execution, stupid. It’s the beginning, the middle and the end of vision and strategy.

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