When it comes to producing results, a leader can make a difference by acting on two fronts: strategy, which is the plan, and the ability to execute the strategy which is to implement it.
Between the two, execution is certainly the area where leaders struggle most. On the other hand, strategy is the area in which leaders usually have the most knowledge. This helps to understand something important from the very start: the area in which managers struggle the most is also the one in which they have received the least training.
And in this area we call “Execution”, the real challenge for a leader is being able to make his team change certain behaviours; for them to achieve significant results, this change is necessary. So a leader needs his work group to be completely committed, which means being fully involved with both their hearts and minds, to produce a change that can resist and persist against the daily grind.
Executing a strategy that requires a lasting change in people’s behaviour is one of the greatest challenges leaders face: the 4 Disciplines of Execution are not part of some abstract theory to try out, they are a series of practical rules to implement, whose efficacy has been proven. In the context of Execution, there is also something referred to as strokes-of-the-pen strategies, which are implemented simply by giving orders, or by authorising the implementation of certain decisions. The most common stroke-of-the-pen strategies are investment of new capital, employing more staff, or the restructuring of roles and responsibilities. With this strategy decisions are made and imposed from above.
Any strategies that do not fall within the ‘pen’ category have a different starting point: for them to be implemented, the team needs to do something different to what it usually does. For example, in a retail store, this might mean asking our employees to greet every customer within 30 seconds of them walking through the door. This change must be lasting and persistent; it will mean that the employees will have to change the way they behave towards customers, making sure that they welcome them, because it is part of our retail strategy.
The real enemy of Execution is what the authors call the “whirlwind”, which are all those daily activities necessary for the survival of the company, which can completely drain people’s energy. When we are trapped in the whirlwind, it can be very difficult to implement a strategy, even more so if it requires a change in our team’s behaviour. The whirlwind and our strategic objectives are both two essential parts of the growth of a company; a good leader understands this and is capable of identifying both. In almost any case where the whirlwind and our objectives collide, the whirlwind prevails, because it encompasses everything that is urgent and needs to be done as soon as possible. The bad news is that the whirlwind has an enormous effect on us.
Goals are important and require us to behave differently from the way we usually do – the good news is that we can take direct action to get results. If a team and a leader only act inside the whirlwind, they will not make any progress, because all their energy will be concentrated on “standing up in the wind”. The real challenge is being able to execute your objectives in the middle of a storm!