Friday, 19 July 2013 12:47

Creating a Culture of Execution & Accountability

“Execution is the great unaddressed issue in the business world today. Its absence is the single biggest obstacle to success and the cause of most of the disappointments that are mistakenly attributed to other causes.” ― Ram Charan, author of What the CEO Wants You to Know and Boards that Work.

In the year 2000 alone, 40 CEOs of the top 200 companies on Fortune’s 500 list were fired or made to resign. When 20 percent of the most powerful business leaders lose their jobs, something is clearly wrong.

Leaders make big promises … and then what their organisations actually deliver falls short. They have accountability problems—people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. Execution is a culture with a specific set of behaviours and techniques that companies must master in order to have competitive advantage. More than a tactic, it is a discipline and a system that must be built into a company’s strategy, goals, and culture, and the leader of the organisation must be deeply engaged in it.

“Many people regard execution as detail work that’s beneath the dignity of a business leader. That’s wrong … it’s a leader’s most important job.” ― Larry Bossidy, former chairman and CEO, Honeywell International

According to Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy in their book Execution (2002), a lack of focus on the discipline of execution is the main reason companies fall short on their promises. It explains the gap between what leaders want and what they deliver.

Execution should be a central part of a company’s strategy and goals and the priority of any leader. An execution and accountability culture links the three core processes of any business—the people process, the strategy, and the operating plan—together to accomplish things on time.

The execution phase forces leaders to translate the broad-brush conceptual understanding of the company’s strategy into an action plan for how it will manifest: who will do what in which sequence, how long those tasks will take, how much will they cost, and how they will affect subsequent activities. Fundamentally, execution is a systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it. Most companies do not face reality very well; hence, they can’t execute.

Execution Questions

  •     Who will do the job—and how will they be judged and held accountable?
  •     What human, technical, production, and financial resources are needed to execute the strategy?
  •     Will the organisation have the resources it needs two years out, when the strategy goes to the next level?
  •     Does the strategy deliver the earnings required for success?
  •     Can it be broken down into doable initiatives?

People engaged in the processes argue these questions, search out reality, and reach specific and practical conclusions. All agree on their responsibilities for getting things done and commit to those responsibilities.

3 Core Processes:  People, Strategy & Operations

The heart of execution lies in the three core processes (the people process, the strategy process, and the operations process), which every business uses in one form or another.

In a 10-year study of winning companies, professors William Joyce and Nitin Nohria found four primary management practices that directly correlate with superior corporate performance, as measured by total return to shareholders: execution, strategy, culture, and structure (What Really Works, 2003).

However, more often than not, these core processes stand apart from one another like silos. Typically, the CEO and his senior leadership team allot less than half a day each year to review the plans and, generally, the reviews are not particularly interactive. What is needed is:

  •     Robust dialogue to surface the realities of the business.
  •     Accountability for results discussed openly and agreed to by those responsible for getting things done.
  •     Rewards for the best performers.
  •     Follow-through to ensure that progress tracks to the plans.

Robust Dialogue

An execution  and accountability culture requires robust dialogue that brings reality to the surface through openness, candour, and informality. When mistakes are made, openness is preserved and blaming avoided. The information is used for course correction. Candour and honesty foster creativity and ultimately lead to competitive advantage and improved shareholder value.

Emotional Fortitude

Emotional fortitude is necessary to be open to whatever information you need, whether it is what you want to hear or not. It takes a special kind of confidence to encourage and accept challenges in group settings. It is necessary to accept and deal with your own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, to be firm with people who aren’t performing, and to handle the ambiguity inherent in fast-moving, complex organisations

The Core Qualities of Emotional Fortitude

Bossidy and Charan point out four core qualities that make up emotional fortitude:


Measuring the degree to which such qualities are present in leaders is a challenge. Fine-tuning these leadership qualities is an even greater challenge. The Australian firm has addressed this challenge, overseeing a body of research into five dimensions of emotional fortitude shown to have the greatest impact on leadership success. The result of this research is a leadership profile which supplies comprehensive and verifiable data on these five dimensions under the over-arching banner of “integrity” including:

  1.     Accountability
  2.     Responsibility
  3.     Truthfulness
  4.     Loyalty
  5.     Self Awareness

Clearly these qualities should be well developed in executives in top positions; however, often one or two of them are often underdeveloped. Leadership development at this level requires the services of a professionally trained executive coach to provide focus and guidance in enhancing these qualities.

Execution Is the Main Job

There’s an enormous difference between leading an organisation and presiding over it. The leader who boasts of a hands-off style is not dealing with the issues of the day, not confronting the people responsible for poor performance or searching for problems to solve and making sure they get solved. Putting the right people in the right jobs and ensuring that rewards and recognition reinforce performance are essential.

The Leader’s 7 Essential Behaviours

Accepting full personal responsibility for running the three core processes does not automatically suggest the leader is also micromanaging their business. Micromanaging is a big mistake; it diminishes people’s self-confidence, saps their initiative, and stifles their ability to think for themselves.

How does a leader in charge of execution avoid being a micromanager caught up in the details of running the business? Seven essential behaviours form the building blocks of execution:

  1.     Know your people and your business.
  2.     Insist on realism.
  3.     Set clear goals and priorities.
  4.     Follow through.
  5.     Reward the doers.
  6.     Expand people’s capabilities.
  7.     Know yourself.

Most executives and managers don’t understand the “discipline” of execution. Execution is not simply a matter of trying harder, paying more attention to details, or doing someone else’s job for them. Execution involves a specific set of core processes built on a foundation of leadership behaviours; it’s a culture unto itself in which accountability and responsibility thrive.

Recommended reading: Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done (2002) by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. Crown Business, New York, NY.

Resources for Execution

Bossidy, L. & Charan, R. (2002). Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. Crown Business.

Bruch, H. & Ghoshal, S. (2004). A Bias for Action. Harvard Business School Publishing.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. Harper Business.

Collins, J. & Porras, J. I. (1994). Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Harper Collins.

Contrada, M. G. (2003). The Discipline of Execution. Harvard Business School Publishing.

Joyce, W., Nohria, N., & Roberson, B. (2003). What Really Works: The 4 + 2 Formula for Sustained Business Success. Harper Business.

Pfeffer, J. & Sutton, R. I. (2000). The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. Harvard Business School Press.

Raffoni, M. (2003, February). Three Keys to Effective Execution. Harvard Management Update, 8 (2), [page numbers].

Worrall, D (2009) A Climate for Change, Life Success Publishing.


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