The Power of Execution

UPDATED: December 2, 2008
PUBLISHED: December 2, 2008

I received a phone call last week from a dejected business leader wanting me to meet with him for lunch to discuss "vision." I agreed, and we went out to a little restaurant near his office. This man's business is about four years old and has been wildly successful. But it has experienced some setbacks recently, including declining revenue, the loss of key employees and some dissatisfaction among the rank and file. At least he is aware there is a problem.

As we settled in, he started the conversation. "I think I must have a vision problem," he said.

"Actually, I disagree. You don't have a vision problem."

"I don't?" he asked.

You see, I have been working with him for a few years now. He actually has an incredible vision of how to take an aging industry, change the model, do it in a new way and transform it. It is because of that vision that he has been so successful these past few years. He is like a magnet, attracting people and money. He definitely doesn't have a vision problem.

"So what is my problem if not a vision problem?"

What I said next is the reality for millions of leaders and entrepreneurs. The last 20 years have been two decades of "vision." It is the No. 1 thing people talk about when discussing leadership. We are to have "vision" and be "visionary leaders," the books say. And it is true that vision is important. But vision without what comes next gets you and your company or organization nowhere.

"You have an execution problem," I told him.

"What's an execution problem?"

"Well, you have a great vision. The problem is, your leaders don't know it, and your followers don't know it nor do they follow it. It is as though it doesn't exist, because it doesn't actually make any difference in what happens day-today in your organization. Your vision never gets executed."

With all the talk of vision, there needs to be execution. If you want 2009 to be your best year ever, then you, as the leader, must make sure you execute and that your followers and employees do, as well. Vision without execution is a pipe dream at best and a broken promise at worst.

A few years back, Fortune magazine did an article, "Why CEOs Fail." The conclusion was that vision was not the culprit. What with all the vision-casting weekends and the endless time spent on vision statements and the like, companies certainly have enough vision. What they lack is execution.

So what does it take to execute? I think there are fi ve things that play a role in whether or not you as an individual and as a leader in your organization actually get stuff done this year. They all go hand in hand, and each is important to getting the job done.

The Big Idea. This is the vision part, and it's where we start. This is the habit that Stephen Covey called "Begin with the end in mind." What is it you want to accomplish? Your idea should be big. It should be inspiring and generate enthusiasm. A small idea won't move anyone anywhere, and you won't get anything done as a small-minded leader. What is your big idea for 2009?

Strategy. In other words, how are you going to get there? Your strategy is your plan. It is how you will get the job done. It is one thing to say you want to double revenue—who doesn't? It is another to develop a plan and strategy to do so. What is your strategy for achieving your vision in 2009?

Consistent, Effective Communication. Once you have your vision and you have your strategy for achieving your vision, you have to drive them through your organization to every level so everyone knows the vision and the strategy. Without consistent and effective communication, your vision and strategy are worthless. They will just be framed statements that hang in the boardroom and grace the cover of your annual report. Most leaders under-communicate by a huge factor. What I have found is that leaders say something a few times and they think everyone must get it, so they stop saying it.

What they don't realize is that the followers don't get it after a few times. We live in a very complex world with way too much communication, and our message gets lost in all that garble. Unless you are the one in a thousand, let me tell you: You are under-communicating your vision and strategy. You need to keep saying it and saying it and saying it. And when you are done saying it, say it some more. Say it in person, say it on the phone, say it in e-mail, say it on video, say it at your meetings and say it on your conference calls. Got it? Say it!

Take Action. The next important step: You must take action. Your employees and followers must take action. Knowing what to do and not doing it is one of the travesties of the human condition. It is as old as humanity itself. One ancient writer said "The things I want to do, I do not do." We all can relate to that! When it all boils down, you are left with some who act and some who don't.

What separates the successful leader from the unsuccessful leader? Why is it that some succeed and others fail? There have been thousands of books written and seminars given to answer that question, but when it comes down to it, there are some who take action and execute and some who don't. Those who do, succeed.

Review Regularly. I have a friend who is always saying, "Plan, do, review," and "Inspect what you expect." He is one of the sharpest business people I know and his businesses thrive. He regularly goes back both by himself and with his employees and reviews where they are and where they are going. He holds himself and his employees accountable to the vision they have and the actions they are taking to get there.

Do you want to improve your leadership this year and make it your best year ever? Then follow these guidelines: Develop your compelling and inspiring vision. Create your well-thought-out plan and strategy. Communicate that vision and strategy consistently and effectively. Take daily action on your strategic plan and make sure your followers do likewise. Review your vision, strategy, communication and actions regularly.

In a nutshell, that is execution. It isn't rocket science. Actually, it is relatively simple. Yet it is very often the simple stuff that trips us up. Execution is simple. It is hard, but it is simple.

As you begin 2009, ask yourself whether you have a vision problem, or an execution problem. Figuring out which is which, and acting upon it, will change your leadership—and your life—forever. Here's to a fantastic 2009!