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Translating Strategy into Action: The Art of Execution

Norm Smallwood /

Every leader must master the skill of execution. It’s one of the five key domains of effective leadership that we’ve identified in the Leadership Code. Simply put, leaders must make things happen. Being good at strategy or planning doesn’t mean much if it’s not coupled with the ability to execute. Executors are masters of change and decision making. They build teams with the right skills and have strong standards of accountability. Most of all, they know how to turn what they want to happen into near-term actions that fulfill promises to stakeholders. 

So what does it mean to be a good executor? Good executors excel in five critical competencies:

1. Make change happen

No matter how long they’ve been in business, leaders who don’t respond to and initiate change will fail quickly. Whether incremental or systemic, mastering change is crucial to effective execution. Bringing a consistent set of change disciplines (we call it a checklist) to every project increases its chance of success. This checklist includes gaining leadership support, building a business case, defining a clear outcome, getting required buy-in, making decisions, institutionalizing the change, and monitoring success.

Ensuring that these changes last requires paying attention to the obstacles and roadblocks to change that exist in every organization. We call these “viruses”—organizational illnesses that can be cured. Examples of common organizational viruses include: . 

  • Good, but…: Criticism is a company sport. We always find something wrong.
  • False positive: Agree in person then disagree in private
  • Forward to the past: We are afraid of losing our heritage and so resist change.

Mitigating the damage caused by a virus depends on proper identification and eradication. While each organization is “infected” with different viruses preventing change, sustainable execution depends on creating new patterns of behavior while exposing and expunging old patterns. 

2. Follow a decision protocol

Leaders are responsible for making hundreds of decisions, some more important than others. Most of us have experienced the consequences of poor decision making. A decision protocol can help protect against ambiguity and launch focused and timely action. Establishing and using a decision protocol can help leaders take intelligent action on important decisions.

These questions can help create better discipline around decision making:

  • What is the decision that needs to be made?
  • Who is going to make the decision?
  • When will the decision be made?
  • How will we make a good decision?

Decision making is one of the most common barriers to excellent execution. Using these questions as a decision protocol can help leaders cut through the clutter and ensures that clear, consistent decisions are made.  

3. Ensure accountability

It’s difficult to get important work done if no one cares about the outcome. Having clear standards, consequences, and feedback increases accountability and creates the traction needed to accomplish important work. 

Accountability begins with establishing clear and specific goals and measures and ensuring that everyone understands what these standards are. Accountability must also have consequences for meeting or missing standards. Whether negative or positive, consequences must be timely, behavior based, and candid. Effective executors must also be sure to give and receive useful and timely feedback. Feedback closes the circle between outward action and inner understanding of the action’s impact. 

4. Build teams

Work is often too complex or time-consuming to be accomplished by any one individual. Effective executors, therefore, rely on high-performing teams. When teams fail, it’s usually not due to a lack of technical or social skills. It’s due to process problems. High-performing teams have four key characteristics: 

  • Clear purpose. A clear purpose is essential for maintaining focus on what the team is doing and why it matters. 
  • Defined governance processes with roles and decision-making protocols. High performing teams have the right people, good administrative processes, and clear roles.  
  • Strong relationships. Building care while managing conflict is essential to maintaining high performance.  
  • Ongoing learning. Effective teams assess, reflect, and improve through formal learning processes, experimentation and failure, and seeking new knowledge, skills, and approaches. 

5. Ensure technical proficiency

Executors ensure that their team members have the right skill sets to perform needed work. After all, teams can only function to the level of skill they possess. This also means having a plan in place to upgrade those skills as time passes and demands change. Looking at new business realities and trends can help leaders determine which technical skills will be important to build in order to continue contributing. 

When leaders master these five elements of execution, they’re well-equipped to ensure that their organization gets where it needs to go. Some leaders are natural executors. Others need more time and training to build this skill. Think about some of the results you need to achieve at work in the next few months. Which of these five elements needs more attention in order to get done what you want to achieve? 

If you’re interested in helping your leaders become better executors, click here to learn more about our leadership development workshops.