4 Reasons Executives Fail at Strategy

The problem

Why do so many executives fail when it comes to executing on their strategy?

The problem — their involvement stops with the talking part.

They just expect it “to happen” once they communicate the strategy.

It’s as though they believe that people throughout the organization will suddenly understand what new work they have to do, that resources will be automatically re-assinged without any pain, and individuals will understand how to prioritize new tasks over current work, so it will just get done.

For years I have been trying to figure out why so many leaders tolerate poor execution and do nothing about it. I’d welcome your comments on this as well.

I see two pitfalls:

1. It’s hard and boring. Measuring, tracking, and communicating is not nearly as fun as doing a deal or creating something new.

2. They feel like it’s beneath them. It’s not worth their brilliant strategic time to focus on. They view execution as a low level job for other, less important, less strategic people to deal with.

Above it all

I’ll deal with the second one first. This “above it all” approach is dangerous.

The best executives engage and motivate their whole organization do to the work that needs to be done by managing the execution, not just talking about the strategy.

Strategy must have action

Strategy without Action is just nice, big-sounding words about things you hope will come true.

And action does not happen without executive involvement. Period.

Yet I see so many executives who keep strategy at the big, exciting goal level. They just expect their organization will somehow, automatically self optimize to make it happen.

Just because you said what the strategy is, doesn’t mean people will do the right things to implement it.

Here are 4 key reasons it doesn’t work to stay “above execution”.

1. Too busy on current work

All organizations are fully busy and under-resourced doing stuff today. The focus and effort it takes to get people to do different stuff than they are doing today is enormous. This will never happen automatically, or in the background, or with a suggestion.

People will never start doing new things unless there is a clear strategy AND action plan to implement that strategy. It doesn’t matter how inspiring your big sounding goals are, people will never start doing new things unless the leader actively shows them what to stop doing, what to start doing and why.

And then the leader needs to stick to the strategy, not undermine it to chase new shiny objects, and reinforce and support the new way of working every day. (Boring, but necessary.)

2. Action causes conflict

The only thing that makes strategy ultimately clear is doing it. Strategy is where you put your resources. You can say your strategy is what ever you want to say, but all you need to do is look at your budget and that tells you your strategy. Your budget describes what you are doing.

If you want to change your strategy, you need to change your budget. A good strategy that drives action will require that some things will get more money and some things will get less money. Some people win and some people lose. This causes conflict.

As a leader you will never drive strategy into action if you are unwilling to engage in this level of clarity and conflict. People will never sort it out amongst themselves. (This is hard, but necessary)

3. Execution requires steady communication from the top

Because you need people to be doing different things and because this causes conflict, people will race back to doing things the old way as soon as there is a bump in the road if there is not an even more powerful, consistent message to stay the course.

As a leader you need to let people know you are serious. You need to over-communicate the strategy by talking about the action: specifically what needs to be done and why. If your people don’t hear a consistent message about execution from you regularly, over time, action will stall or revert to the old way.

4. Execution requires measures and consequences

So many companies set strategic goals, then don’t achieve them, and then nothing happens. Without measures and consequences for not meeting them, no strategic initiative will ever happen.

If the leader does not engage in the discussion about what happened, how will we fix it, and what the consequences are, there is no motivation whatsoever for anyone to do anything different than what they are doing today.

It’s hard and it’s boring

As it turns out, this is the part of business leadership I was always best at. The hard and the boring stuff — The clarity, the conflict, the measuring, the tracking, the communication, and the consequences. At translating Strategy into Action into Results. This is a big part of the work that I do with executive management teams in my Strategy into Action Program.

If you are not happy with how fast and predictably your organization can execute on your goals and commitments, brace yourself for some hard and boring, and look to these 4 ideas to get you back on track.

Visionary Executives

Let’s face it. Some executives are not good at this part of execution and will never be.

It is critical for an executive who is an externally focused, industry visionary, deal maker to recognize that they need someone on their staff who can help do the hard and boring part. But take some care to realize that while you can delegate execution to some extent, you can not abdicate it entirely.

Even if you are not personally good at managing execution over the long term, you can’t simply remain above it because you find it dis-tasteful, boring, or unbecoming of an executive of your stature.

You need to lead the communications, decisions and enforcement of consequences even if you are not doing all the leg-work personally. Otherwise you will be disconnected from the actual strategy of the company as you relish in the smart sounding big, goal-oriented words that describe your wishes, not your reality.

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About Patty
Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at www.AzzarelloGroup.com, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.


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You can find Patty at www.AzzarelloGroup.com, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

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