Antique photograph of people from the World: Thomas A Edison

Vision Without Execution is Hallucination

Factors to Close the Execution Gap

Thomas Edison’s quote, uttered more than 100 years ago, rings true across organizations of all sizes in the year 2013. In fact, in a wobbly economy where entrepreneurial activity is on the rise, execution is even more critical for success and survival.

There was a time when strategic planning was a leader’s primary focus and concern. That is no longer the case, strategic planning is important, but as a sole focus of leadership it’s a luxury.  In the start-up realm the analogy would be a founder fixated on creating the perfect business plan but finding themselves crippled when it comes to turning that plan into action. Knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different skils sets that leadership must possess in order to take an idea from concept to reality.

In the current business climate, a well-implemented mediocre idea is far better than a great idea that can’t get off the ground. A great idea is a starting point—execution is what differentiates a winner from a loser creating barriers to entry and long-term viability.

So, what can start-up or even growth stage companies do to support execution? Here are five thoughts based on what I’ve personally observed in more than 15 start-ups during my career.

1. Empowering People & Building Trust

Leadership has a great opportunity to be a partner in the team’s success. Their behavior must be consistent with the messaging, if a company wants to empower employees to take risks, they have to be able to redeem them if things don’t go well. A CEO’s reaction to success and failure will determine the level of trust he or she builds. People are smart—they know when the leader is with them.

2. Holding People Accountable for Delivering Results

Building trust doesn’t mean laying out the tasks and then taking your hands off the wheel.  Holding people accountable by monitoring and not micro managing demonstrates the style of trust necessary for employees to feel safe and give their all.  Leadership must set clear expectations including time-lines and regular check-in opportunities. Employees must feel safe to say that deadlines will not be met, providing alternatives that are consistent with the goals of the organization with enough time to get there.

3. Managing & Leading Change

Change is inevitable—in a start-up it’s a requirement.  Change is disturbing for most human beings but leading through change is a critical attribute of successful leadership. Leadership must be able to look at the environment, determine what needs to happen and them make the tough decisions necessary to take action. Admitting we’re wrong or that things have changed can be rough, but it really is a necessity to survive. Leadership means leading when things change not just executing on a pr-existing vision.

4. Coordination Across Work Units—Single, Consistent Focus

As an old basketball player I know that teams who don’t play well together don’t win.  Coordination across business units is a critical element for high-impact implementation.  Product can’t be in a silo while sales and marketing are off making promises that can’t be delivered. Over promising and under delivering is a poor strategy in any industry.

5. Leadership Behavior Must Be Aligned with the Needs and Objectives of the Organization

“Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work very well in parenting or running a company.  Leadership must toe the line and live out the behavior they want to see in their employees.  No one should ever say that they work harder than the CEO. Companies are not a democracy, that doesn’t work very well either but even a benevolent dictator must earn the respect of their team.

A final recommendation to enhance execution is outsourcing, guaranteeing that your resources have the skills and proven track record to make things happen effectively and quickly.   Start-ups and companies looking to exist or take on an acquisition likely can’t afford the type of skills necessary to execute effectively.  Filling the skill gap with expertise for a period of time is not only smart, it can also be highly affordable in terms of real hires and opportunity cost.

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