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The big finish: Clearing the hurdles to successful execution
In the best-selling book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, Larry Bossidy, the well-known company turnaround guru and former chairman of Honeywell International, is quoted as saying, “Many people regard execution as detail work that’s beneath the dignity of a business leader. That’s wrong. To the contrary, it’s the leader’s most important job.”
It may be, but often executing a strategy successfully can become as tough as the initial challenge that prompted the need for action. Why? A shortsighted CEO, unknown variables, or poor timing can hinder even the greatest plan. Take the story of Lucent Technologies, for instance. The authors note that despite all of the high hopes for the systems and technology spin-off of AT&T, by the late 1990s Lucent simply couldn’t follow through on many of its good ideas. The company’s bureaucracy made it difficult to execute a plan and quickly respond to market demands for such things as routers and optical gear.
Even the well-intentioned leader, Bossidy notes, often forgets the role of a company’s “people, strategy, and operations” in seeing a goal through to reality. Mastering these three critical elements is often downplayed in favor of what may be seen as the more glamorous role of charting the company’s vision.
The UPS culture is to promote from within, and we typically don’t delegate execution to another group or business unit. We hold people accountable straight up and down the operation.
—George Post ’05WEMBA
But, says George Post ’05WEMBA, marketing director for new product development at UPS, the executive who stays stuck in the vision mode and neglects the execution strategy will ultimately be detrimental to the company. “Every member of the corporate team needs to be invested in the execution process.” A more inclusive and accountable corporate environment needs to be established, adds Post. “In my role, what I do is very hands on. The UPS culture is to promote from within, and we typically don’t delegate execution to another group or business unit. We hold people accountable straight up and down the operation. We’re all chartered in the success of the firm.” Post adds that once the ego is put aside, employees need to be empowered to act on the leader’s behalf in carrying out the delineated execution plan.
At a large global company, a top-level manager simply can’t be at every place at every moment when a critical move needs to be made. Being able to delegate then becomes essential. Alan Lacy ’77MBA, CEO for Sears, Roebuck and Company,* recommends, “Get the right people involved—those that understand the task and therefore the effort to properly execute it. Generally, I think companies often underestimate the importance of getting proper prioritization of tasks, allocating the right resources to the task and getting proper alignment to what the agenda really is. But management also needs to set goals that challenge the organization to do more than they might otherwise do.”
Rallying the troops around a vision
As important as it is to execute effectively, Andrea Hershatter, associate dean and director of the BBA Program and a senior lecturer in organization and management, worries about the pendulum swinging too far in that direction—with some business leaders believing that excellence in execution actually is a strategy in and of itself. “In a fiscally lean and hyper competitive environment, I absolutely agree that execution is a vital concern. Effective systems and low tolerance for imperfection results in cost savings and the kind of consistency that build reputation and customer loyalty. However, for excellence in execution to yield any sort of sustainable advantage, it must be tied to not only doing things right, but doing them for the right reasons. Execution without vision is not a distinctive strategy,” she says.
Getting managers and employees to buy into the CEO’s vision can certainly be half of the battle. As Hershatter notes, “If the employees find the organizational purpose to be compelling and meaningful, it will take on motivational force for them. This means they will internalize the vision and their actions will be driven and focused in accordance with the goals and intentions set forth by management. Superior execution follows when employees feel a sense of vital urgency and therefore embrace operational models that enable them to be more effective.”
Joey Reiman, an adjunct professor of marketing at Goizueta and CEO of BrightHouse, a marketing and consultancy firm, agrees with Hershatter’s contention, and adds, “Execution is enabled if there is a pervasive and distinct idea driving it. Companies with galvanizing ideas give a sense of passion and resilience to the company—an environment of originality and creativity. If the idea is all about how we see with the eyes, then execution is all about the feet.” Reiman describes a marriage that must occur between a company’s “core executional strengths and its idea strengths. But the idea has to come before the execution. It is difficult to follow through if you’re not inspired.”
The ability to combine great vision with a devotion to execution may be the holy grail of modern management. Says Hershatter, “Truly great CEOs are visionary leaders who know not only how to capitalize on the role their companies play in the world today, but also retain the ability to dream big in terms of what their organizations can become tomorrow. It’s not enough to think great thoughts though. Execution is about not only communicating aspirations internally and externally, but also aligning operational systems around those goals in order to make them realities.”
For example, Hershatter and Reiman point to Whole Foods Market, a company built on an overriding belief in the interdependence between people and the earth. This is what Reiman calls a “master idea,” which he defines as a “compelling force that catapults a company into the realm of possibility. It provides a beacon and direction.” Hershatter adds, “By aligning Whole Foods around a strategy of ‘whole people, whole foods, whole planet,’ everything from employee recruitment, to acquisition strategies to customer service is executed in accordance with the overarching values. Because the company is functioning as a unified and directed organization, execution occurs with powerful precision.”
Factoring in the human factor
Unfortunately, the impact of the human factor in the process is too often overlooked. “What most companies seem to underestimate or misunderstand are the human implications regarding execution—especially on new projects and initiatives,” says Peter Topping, executive director of the Executive Education Program and senior lecturer in organization and management. “There are plenty of analysts who can focus on the optimum technical applications, but few who adequately factor in the human equation. This is particularly acute in organizations that are pushing down multiple initiatives. Priorities are lost, resources inadequately allocated since each initiative needs key people and capital, and we fail to grasp the reality that associates can only absorb a few changes at a time.”
Setting clear company standards remedies quite a bit of the confusion. Hershatter says that execution remains dependent on two components. “The first is to put institutional policies and procedures in place that assure that products and services are developed, created and delivered in a standardized, consistent format by the most efficient means. The second is to assure that the actual enactment of these procedures is operationalized according to the plan. Without buy-in from the organization’s employees, execution will be compromised or resisted. Whether this buy-in occurs or not is strongly related to corporate culture, communication, and vision.”
Company culture, for better or worse, can certainly play a large role in the success of the company’s execution strategy. Post notes, “The key to it all is really about empowering people. Training, internal mentoring, and external education helped me to be successful. The follow through is critical; otherwise it’s all merely lip service. You have to build a bond of trust with the employees and across the company, with management willing to hear employee complaints and concerns.” Once a supportive and learning culture is built, even the most difficult plans, from a new product launch to a merger strategy, become easier to execute.
Of course, it helps if employees understand how the divergent parts of the organization operate, so that when business plans are implemented there is a real sense of just how that strategy might play out. Post notes that the UPS policy is to move people around through the various units of the organization, so that no one person ever becomes functionally siloed. He says, “I was hired from a leading consulting firm in the 1980s, and I actually have a tech background. I was moved to the strategic operations group at UPS. After that, I went to work at our customer facing technology group. This sort of strategy also helps to break ruts and to stop corporate culture problems before they start.”
Getting on the same page
Managers are counted on to disseminate quite a lot. It’s a challenge, and so often they don’t necessarily align and work on the same timing as other dependant parts of the company.
—Kathy Gersch ’94MBA
Open channels of communication are also essential in execution strategy. Kathy Gersch ’94MBA, vice president, chief marketing officer and retail general manager of drugstore.com, notes that communicating the company’s goals, methodology, and strategy to employees across a global operation can be particularly challenging. “In a large organization, the tentacles can be far-reaching, from the various divisions to international locations. To make an effective strategy and have that implemented by all in the group can be hard. Managers are counted on to disseminate quite a lot. It’s a challenge, and so often they don’t necessarily align and work on the same timing as other dependant parts of the company.”
Gersch recommends planning the company’s communication strategy with the same focus and initiative as the firm’s business strategy. “In my experience you cannot over-communicate. For example, drugstore.com just rolled out a new strategy around shipping for the upcoming year. Every manager got a script and a list of FAQs, so that employees are hearing identical messages and answers, regardless of the message conveyor. It’s only through repetition that the energy and the commitment to the strategy is communicated.” However, for major changes in-house, such as a reorganization or shift in business strategy, she says that key executives should still take the time to visit the various locations.
Once internal communication is on the same page, it’s key to get the externally facing messages synchronized as well, says Gersch. For instance, the advertising and marketing materials coming by mail from a brick and mortar department store should synch up with and promote the same image or brand as the online campaigns. Sherron Bienvenu, a professor emerita at Goizueta, likens the process to a chorus with every member “singing from the same sheet of music.” Bienvenu is also an expert in management communications and social psychology and a visiting professor for the International MBA program at the Helsinki School of Economics in Finland. She notes, “If you look at companies that have a consistent image with all of their constituencies, they have a clear intention at the beginning of the strategy stage and build their identity for all their constituencies based on their intentions.”
Bienvenu says that a company, such as internationally recognized Nokia, for example, succeeds only when there is attention paid to knowing its constituencies—including customers, suppliers, investors, employees and more. “Their print ads match the branding on the website, and it all matches up with what goes out to investors and how they treat employees and even what is disseminated for their philanthropic work.” But what if a launch of a new advertising campaign, with the image of a caring and compassionate stalwart business leader, premiered the same week as media coverage on the company’s layoffs? The efforts made and the execution strategies used would be all for nothing. Even inside information doesn’t stay inside for long. Bienvenu adds, “Investors will know someone who works at the company. You can’t tell employees one thing and tell investors something else, and the media is covering it all. Everything is linked.”
A balancing act
Understanding that connection between culture, communication, policy, vision and execution can be a wide crevasse to bridge. Hershatter notes, “Interestingly, recent research has shown that while closely prescribed executional systems can enhance quality and reduce cost, they actually impede innovation. Tight systems that are organized around minimizing deviations do not provide the sort of free-flow and experimentation that can lead to break-through thinking. Companies that institute operational efficiencies at the expense of core values and purpose can only enforce their enactment through authoritarian models that disempower the employees.
Ultimately, managers and employees become resistant to this sort of change. The flip side is that the lack of organizational efficiency is fiscally irresponsible.”
Robin Cooper, a professor in the practice of management accounting at Goizueta, admits that the “devil is in the details” when it comes to executing a specific strategy or vision. The complexities of business, the unpredicted competitive factors, far-flung locations, and the ever-changing global environment do make it difficult. Add all of this together and it does become one heady mix. “Even if you have a clear strategy statement, you still have to turn that into reality.” He refers back to former Honeywell chair Larry Bossidy as a good example of a chief executive mindful of the details and aware of the resources needed to coordinate the process.
Clearly, achieving effective execution is an evolutionary process, says Cooper. He adds, “You have to get a handle on motivation, compensation, sending the right signals from the leadership team. You have to make sure your people have the resources that are required to pull it all together. Good execution develops over time.” Cooper currently teaches a class on strategic alignment (another term for execution) in Goizueta’s MEMBA program. The students start the class by visiting an Aldi store, just one of the companies studied in the course. Cooper notes, “I tell the students that over the years the checkout counters have been modified. They used to have an area at the end for the checked out items, now they do not. Today, the customer’s purchases go directly into the cart instead of being placed on the end of the counter. This change improves the flow of customers through the checkout process. The lesson is clear. Incremental changes are used at Aldi to make the execution more effective.”
After the initial three class sessions, the students develop a detailed analysis of the strategic execution at a firm they know well (normally the one they are currently working for). Cooper says, “One student, the CEO of a company, wrote a detailed strategic execution plan for his firm. After reading it, I suggested that he change the description of his strategy from operational excellence to customer intimacy. The light bulbs went off and he realized that he was executing a customer intimate strategy, while espousing to be operationally excellent.”
Weathering the storm
Sometimes outside factors bring change to a company at breakneck speed. With the mere stroke of a pen, government regulation can force management to respond to new industry restraints, and, in turn, create a business plan and the accompanying execution strategy in quick response. A new entrant into the field brings out a revolutionary piece of competing technology. If the company is lucky enough to be able to coordinate the management agenda, the vision, the execution strategy, and the employee buy-in, then the ability to adapt to change is often the final and most extreme hurdle.
You have to execute with your particular customer in mind. There has to be flexibility in execution.
—Sid Mookerji ’04MEMBA
Sid Mookerji ’04MEMBA, founder and CEO of Software Paradigms International, an offshore IT services firm based in Atlanta, says that a company’s ability to adapt quickly can be problematic, as employees are generally resistant to any new initiatives or alterations in their routine. Acknowledging that staffers may complain or fall back into old habits is important, he says. “It helps to have an executive team that is espousing the same beliefs and who are obviously buying into the process. The employees will see that you are committed to making it happen, and they will eventually buy into it.”
Today, his company has locations in the United States and India. Mookerji says he has also had to set differing priorities in different locales. “You have to execute with your particular customer in mind. There has to be flexibility in execution.” Although distinctions in customer base can be helpful, creating distance between top-level management and staff can be particularly detrimental for a global company. Instead, Mookerji looks to a more inclusive management model. For example, he regularly sends out company-wide e-mails to keep all of his employees—stateside and abroad—invested in the process. He adds, “When you get right down to it, no matter the situation, executing effectively is really about change management, and that is never easy.”
*As of press time, a vote was taking place on the merger between Sears and Kmart. The company name and Lacy’s title may have changed since then.
—Myra A. Thomas
Understanding the role of industry in execution
Sears, Roebuck and Company CEO Alan Lacy ’77MBA contends that depending on the industry, execution can play a greater role than the actual strategy. “I believe a mediocre strategy, well-executed, can beat excellent strategy, poorly executed, at least in the short run,” he argues. In some industries, specifically for the airlines and retail, it is often difficult to have significantly differentiated strategies. Peter Topping, executive director of executive education and a senior lecturer in organization and management at Goizueta, agrees and says that there are “few unique strategies in any industry.
In this information age, it is virtually impossible to have invisibility with regards to strategic moves.” In these circumstances, the quality of execution becomes paramount.
The execution can, of course, differ depending on the industry. Robin Cooper, a professor in management accounting at Goizueta, notes, “Execution at the business unit level for a McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, where the companies are basically the same from location to location, are a lot less problematic. There may be some national differences, but the core concept is pretty much the same throughout. However, for a diversified company such as General Electric, it is a totally different thing. For example, there is no reason that the strategy for the Consumer Finance division should bear any resemblance to the strategy for the Healthcare Division.”
In large, complex global companies, a number of factors can impede execution. Subsidiaries may operate in entirely different market sectors. Additionally, the peculiarities of a given industry need to be considered. For example, merger and acquisition activity can be a common occurrence in certain market sectors; thus, execution strategies may need to be revised more frequently. Topping notes the recent merger between Kmart and Sears. Although it caught many in the retail sector by surprise, he says, “The strategic implications of that merger are already becoming clear to their competitors. The critical issue for Kmart and Sears will be their ability to execute on this strategic shift.”
Applying execution strategies at home
Learning how to follow through on the day-to-day tasks of personal life can be just as difficult as getting things accomplished at work. Often, the sheer number of assignments that need to be accomplished can overwhelm a person—from supermarket shopping to bill paying and home improvements, not to mention shuttling kids to football practice or a routine dental appointment. And, if you aspire to have a more meaningful private life by devoting yourself to your children, an avocation or hobby, or commitments at a religious organization, you may find the long hours required on your job also cutting into this valuable time.
Rick Gilkey, associate professor in organization and management at the Goizueta Business School and an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the Emory University School of Medicine, says that the first step in the process is to define the specific goals in your life. This might mean making sure to set aside time for weekly Cub Scout meetings with your son, he says. “This helps you move from strategy to a tactical stage. Everyone says that their families come first, but unless strategic aspiration is converted into actionable items and scheduled, it remains only that—an idealized aspiration.”
Of course, the old saying is true—there are only so many hours in the day, says Gilkey. “You have to do some internal work to be realistic that if you make such personal commitments, based on your values, that some of the time involved may have to come from work—so you may need to work 40 to 45 hours a week instead of 50 or more. Simplify your life so you don’t create unnecessary complexity and clutter. For example, buying a summer cottage sounds terrific, but you have to ask yourself whether or not the demands of managing a property outweigh the benefits.” It also helps to remember to ask for help. “For things that cannot be eliminated, use all the resources you can to attack these tasks—that includes asking other people, and using software or specific organizational practices.”
Sherron Bienvenu, a professor emerita at Goizueta, agrees with Gilkey’s approach. She says, “Today’s executive is very effective at the office, and what makes them effective in the workplace will also work at home. You don’t do your partner’s work at the office, so don’t do your spouse’s work at home. You train your subordinates to become independent, so apply the same practice with your children. You have a meeting and clearly articulate your needs, goals, and expectations. Do it at home.” Bienvenu is also an expert in management communications and social psychology and a visiting professor for the International MBA program at the Helsinki School of Economics in Finland.
Alternately, the skills acquired from one’s personal life can sometimes be applicable on the job. Gilkey says, “One of the most highly organized single mothers I know transferred her organizational skills from home directly to work. In this particular town, she ran the mayor’s office for a number of years. Now she is the mayor. Her competence and commitment to excellence transferred seamlessly from one sphere to another.”
—Myra A. Thomas