“Execution – getting the task done, making it happen – is the most unappreciated skill of an effective business leader”. So wrote Lou Gerstner, the architect of IBM’s 1990’s turnaround, in his book – “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?. It’s also the most important stage of any business strategy. Yet, in my opinion, the standard of execution is in decline. Great execution is the exception, not the rule.
Despite the research; despite the training; despite the books and DVD’s on leadership and teamwork, there are forces at work in our present day environment that impede the translation of theory into practice.
The Challenges of Change
At the root of the problem is the accelerating pace of change. The impact of change on the quality of execution manifests itself in many different ways but the key ones are as follows:
■ Business strategies have shorter use-by dates and even during their period of currency require constant adaptation. The consequence of this is that timetables for implementation have become tighter
■ The impact of globalisation on many businesses is profound – exchange rates, labour rates, new technology, new competitors and advances in IT. In our inter-connected world, the impact of such changes is far more immediate
■ The need to adapt and possibly make fundamental changes to strategy often involves significant and on-going financial investment that many organisations in both the public and private sector struggle to meet
■ The need to compete in the face of global and intensifying competition has led to a relentless emphasis on cost containment, efficiency and productivity
■ Restructurings, down-sizings, out-sourcings, mergers, acquisitions, take-overs and alliances have become the norm
■ Many developed economies are undergoing fundamental adjustment as the manufacturing and agricultural sectors decline and the service sector grows
■ As a consequence of all the above, security of employment has decreased with a corresponding increase in the mobility of labour both within and between employers
It’s the last mentioned consequence, employment security, that has had a major impact on the quality of execution. As Charles Darwin pointed out, “it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Hence in the western world, Baby-Boomers have experienced the most difficulty in coming to terms with the new workplace norms, followed by Generation X.
Generation Y – the Preeminent Adaptors
Generation Y are the most successful adapters because their workplace environment has always been thus. So how has Gen Y adapted?
■ Gen Y has been conditioned to accept that during the course of their working lives, they will experience two or three changes of career and several employers. The days of working one’s way up the corporate ladder with the same employer have gone forever. Lifetime job security is a thing of the past. I’m not suggesting that Gen Y flit between one employer and another with no trace of trepidation but their attitude to changing jobs, whether by choice or necessity, is very different from that of the Baby-boomers.
■ Gen Y have a different attitude towards their employer. Unlike Baby-Boomers and to a lesser extent Gen X, Gen Y do not have any great sense of loyalty to their employer as they sense that their employer has little loyalty towards them.
■ Gen Y accept pressure and time constraints to accomplish tasks more readily than their elders. Their whole lives are lived at a greater intensity.
■ Lack of job security, the pressure to perform and constant change leads Gen Y to adopt a more self-interested attitude. Their I-World runs deeper that iPhones and iPads.
Add to the mix better “technical” skills and an ability to understand and exploit Information Technology, the most adaptable of Gen Y are confident, assertive and believe in controlling their own destiny rather than leaving it in the hands of their current employer to dictate. At the same time, it is more than likely that Gen Y couples both work, have to service a substantial mortgage, repay a hefty HECS bill, pay for child-care but still want to enjoy a life outside that of work. And it’s a composite of all these factors that leads the brightest of Gen Y (and Gen X) to believe that the quicker they can climb the corporate ladder, their employability will grow and hence the lack of job security becomes less of an issue. Furthermore, they see their career success factors as technical competence coupled with strong self-management skills. Empowering others – to get things done comes a distant third. At the same time, their managers and supervisors from a different generation often feel threatened by their technically competent and confident reports and hence try to suppress them by controlling rather than empowering them.
The Case for Empowerment
In my work on execution, I have identified 36 reasons why things don’t happen as the planners intended and of that number, more than half – 19 to be precise – relate to failures to empower employees. Moreover, these failures start at the planning stage so the organisation’s ability to execute is compromised right from the outset.
When one takes into account the pace of change and the constant need to adapt to an environment over which one has no control, it’s evident that just making the right strategic choices is a test of an organisation’s technical competence. Yet even if the right choices are made and the implications of those choices correctly determined, execution will still suffer if the organisation lacks the empowerment skills to get employees at all levels behind the strategy. It’s sometimes forgotten that whilst strategies are formulated from above, they are executed from below.
Empowering others – to get things done takes time and commitment. It begins at the planning stage. How many planners seek consensus on the current reality facing their organisation and summarise the rationale behind the new strategy? How many planners make a conscious decision to separate “this is what we are going to do” from “this is how we are going to do it” and then involve those charged with the plan’s execution in the latter deliberations? How many planners take the time to establish an overall goal to which everyone in the organisation can relate? These are just three issues that require addressing at the planning stage before execution starts! And when it comes to execution, 13 out of the 14 barriers relate to aspects of empowerment – of others – to get things done.
The conclusion might be drawn that given the present day environment in which we work and the manner in which Gen Y in particular have adapted to it that the cost in terms of time and commitment to empower others outweighs the benefits to organisational performance. I’m convinced that this is not so.
The basis of great execution is organisational alignment – the alignment of the organisation’s strategies to the external environment and the alignment of the staff within it. Thus alignment begins at the planning stage. This stage might take longer than it would do otherwise but an involved and empowered workforce will do a far better job of bringing plans to reality. Empowerment leads to greater employee engagement and with engagement comes greater flexibility, discretionary effort and a greater awareness of the need to adapt the strategy to a frequently changing environment. Not only do staff learn the value of empowering others but job satisfaction grows with a consequent reduction in staff turnover – which brings me to another characteristic of Gen Y.
Gen Y’s believe that managers have to earn their respect; it is not something that their superiors are automatically entitled to. Gen Y’s have greater expectations of their work life and are less tolerant of employers who fail to measure up – and who can blame them?