You’re an ambitious CEO with your eyes firmly set on the horizon. You know your tech business has considerable potential. And you’re aware of opportunities opening up, right now, for companies that are first out of the blocks. To prosper and grow, you need to get execution right. Yet, so few companies do.
That’s because getting people to change is the real challenge of execution. You can come up with the most persuasive, jaw-dropping strategy in the world. But without total buy-in from your staff, it’s likely to wither and die.
This matters, and it needs action. Last week, I talked about the ‘Great Resignation’ that’s about to hit. If your company doesn’t hum like a well-oiled machine, you’re in danger of losing your good people – your ‘A-Players’. They’re driven and want to be on a mission. They like achieving and keeping score. And they want to work with like-minded people.
It’s the perfect flywheel. Smooth execution attracts A-Players who then drive even smoother execution. I know because we achieved this when I owned ILM. I’d interview great candidates and ask them why they wanted to join us. They’d been working for years for our competitors, why move now? They told us that ours was the first job they’d felt excited about. And that’s because they’d heard great things about the way we worked.
So how do you improve execution in your business? What are the main things to focus on?
1. A clear vision
Do you know where you’re heading? Why you do what you do? Vision is everything. It’s the reason your company exists and should drive your people. For the avoidance of doubt, I’m talking about BHAG, Purpose and Values here – all things that I’ve written about at length before. These are the things that will bring your staff back to the office. They’ll return because they want to be part of what you’re going to achieve together.
In its research, Gallup has said that only 15% of the global workforce are engaged. There’s only one word for that. Sad. The vast majority of people go to work because it’s a job that will earn them money. Then they retire and do something they enjoy. But what if they loved coming to work? If they felt they were part of something great? That only happens if your business has a vision.
Look at the companies that do well in ‘Best Places to Work’ or similar award schemes. Their financial performance will consistently outperform companies that don’t have a vision at their core. You can use your vision to mobilize, energize and inspire your people. Getting your team to come on your journey can be hugely rewarding.
And the converse of this? Low productivity. You’ll lose 40% of the discretionary effort that’s inherent in every one of your staff.
2. Commit to recruiting ‘A-Players’
Jim Collins puts this at the top of his list for effective execution. It’s vital to commit to increasing the percentage of ‘A-Players’ in your business. At the very least, your whole leadership team should be at the top of their game. Then high performance will start to cascade down through your company.
Do a talent assessment. Start at the top and work your way down through the management layer and into the rest of your people. Recognize that you’re going to have to make some hard decisions. For every person, ask yourself 1. ‘If they resigned tomorrow, would I be disappointed?’ and 2. ‘Knowing what I know about them now, would I enthusiastically rehire them next year?’
There needs to be a resounding ‘yes’ to both of these questions. Any ‘no’ answers mean that person is going to hold you back. Even if you just pause, it’s a ‘no’ because it wasn’t an obvious ‘yes’. You need to take action straight away.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate
There’s no point in having a clear vision if you don’t communicate it. Communication is central to the Rockefeller Habits, the execution framework that helped scale many companies very quickly. If you put one of your people on the spot, they should be able to tell you the vision of the company without hesitation.
You want your staff to have autonomy. If they know the direction of travel, you won’t need to tell them what to do all the time. They’ll manage themselves. It’s so much more rewarding to work like that. As Daniel Pink put it in his best-selling book, ‘Drive’, “Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.” Well said.
Establish a good communication rhythm and stick at it. At the very least, this should include a monthly All-Hands and always start these gatherings with good news.
4. Set specific individual goals
If you have a BHAG, it needs to be boiled down into something that every one of your team understands in terms of performance. They need to know what their individual goals are and how they can push the needle forwards.
This is hard. Often, OKRs are created that don’t relate to the vision. Ultimately, OKRs are about change and committing to making that change. If they don’t take you towards your ultimate destination, they’re not good OKRs. Every person needs to task themselves with making a change over the day, week, month or next 90 days that move the business towards its vision. They need to think as much about what they DON’T do as what they do.
5. Don’t take on too much
People are always way too optimistic. It’s tempting to over-commit, mainly if you’ve hired a motivated team of A-Players who want to change the world! Or if you’ve just hired a business coach and want to run too fast. Far better to do fewer things but do them well.
This is why we hammer home the importance of priorities. As a maximum, you should have three to five that you’re working on at any one time. Not 25! Remember, it’s far better to start slowly and build things up. Think of fitness as an example. When you’re training, you run at a target heart rate – 180 minus your age – not above it. This way, you build an aerobic base, but you don’t get injured. Slow and steady wins the race.
6. Use metrics to measure progress
I love a good metric! They bring genuine clarity to execution, making every person in your team feel like they’re making progress. But you need to make sure you measure the right things.
We recommend to clients they use KPIs to measure BAU (Business As Usual). Go into your marketplace and look for benchmarks from your competitors. Examine your quote to cash and revenue-generating processes and choose metrics that help you measure these. Other significant areas of your business need metrics too, such as staff engagement and customer satisfaction. Our top recommendations for these are Friday Pulse and NPS (Net Promoter System), respectively. They’re so effective.
7. Keep score, every day
There’s no point in having metrics if people don’t know the score and see the progress they’ve made each day. I’ve long advocated a regular daily rhythm, and keeping a score should be part of this.
What’s the first foundational question of the Gallup Q12 survey of staff engagement? ‘I know what’s expected of me at work’. There it is. People need to know they’ve achieved something when they finish work – it’s vital for motivation. Make it clear to them what they’re expected to do and how this impacts the company’s numbers. If they’ve been working on something that doesn’t do this, they need to ask themselves why.
8. Ensure accountability
Are you begging your staff to do the job you already pay them to do? That’s nuts. You need to improve accountability. It comes back to whether your people are A-Players. If they’re at the top of their game, they’ll be naturally proactive. When they get their data or feedback, they’ll own their metric and their progress entirely. Managers need to get away from command and control and towards being coaches.
When you’re coming up with a framework for accountability, remember it starts at the top. Your executive team need to hold you accountable as CEO. As do the rest of the senior team, you need KPIs, which should be visible to the whole organisation. What are the KPIs that, a year from now, will make you and the rest of your team exceptional in your roles? Then commit to them together.
9. Get clarity over key processes
There are tools you can use to get clarity over the most critical processes in your business. You’re looking for the ones that are critical to making money. Then you can rank them Red, Amber or Green to establish priorities. Identify who owns each process along with the leading and lagging indicators. You can then RAG score them every quarter. This is a great way to drive your OKRs.
When we analyze the value chains of client businesses, we work out how to put together their activity system and whether they’re doing anything different in their value chain. For example, is there anything in their HR process that’s a differentiator? This can then drive their willingness to pay metrics.
10. Plan ahead, but not too far.
Whilst your BHAG or vision is ten, even twenty years towards the horizon, it’s essential to have more realistic immediate milestones for slow, steady growth. From my experience, 90 days is the perfect execution rhythm combined with a three-year plan (or 3HAG).
Longer-term, you should always include your differentiators in any planning. Identify your willingness to pay attributes and decide strategic differentiators. Then you can include activities that focus on getting better at these things over the next three to five years.
Ultimately, be realistic about your strengths as CEO. If you know you’re cr*p at execution, hire someone whose sh*t-hot at it. I’m speaking from experience here. Be self-aware and hire the right team. Then you’re unstoppable.