In the best-selling business book, “Execution, the Discipline of Getting Things Done,” the authors wrote:
“Execution is a specific set of behaviors and techniques that companies need to master in order to have competitive advantage. It is a discipline of its own. In big companies and small ones, it is the critical discipline for success now.”
There are five specific steps which, if performed well and consistently by the CEO, will lead to a culture of excellence in executing plans and processes.
1. Set Clear Expectations
If employees at all levels, from line level to executive, are to execute what the CEO expects, they have to understand very clearly what the expectations are. There can be no ambiguity. If there is a lack of clarity, it is the CEO’s responsibility to uncover and correct this.
Often times CEOs think expectations are clear in the mind of their direct reports. I once met with a CEO who owned computer stores. The employees were technicians and were paid on commission. Some only made $20,000 to $30,000 annually. Others made as high as $100,000-$120,000 annually. I asked the CEO if the employees knew very clearly what was expected of them. He was extremely confident they knew.
I went to visit a couple of the stores and immediately noticed that some employees wore company shirts while others did not. When I asked some of the employees what the expectations were for wearing the company shirts, the responses were all similar. They said, “Well, they want you to wear them, but you don’t really have to.”
When I met again with the CEO, I asked him about the expectations for wearing company shirts. I told him what the employees had said to me. He replied, “No, no, no. They are supposed to be wearing the company shirts. We’re getting better. We’re at about 65 percent compliance now.”
It’s possible that at the beginning, the CEO may have set clear expectations, but by failing to follow one or more of the other four steps, he sent a subtle but powerful message: “We want you to wear the company shirts, but you don’t really have to.”
As you will see, there are other steps that allow the CEO to know if expectations are clear or not.
2. Teach and Coach
There are some expectations that can be taught and don’t require ongoing coaching. Others that are more complex will need ongoing coaching.
Imagine someone who never played golf went for a golf lesson. The coach would teach them the basics of the swing, and then the student would get an hour of practice and coaching. They certainly would not be able to go right from that first lesson to playing 18 holes and shooting par. There would need to be ongoing coaching if the student wanted to get to a point where they could shoot par.
If a new salesperson is taught sales processes that are expected in the company, just teaching them one time will not be nearly enough for them to fully understand and execute expectations. This will require ongoing coaching.
3. Inspect What You Expect
I once knew a CEO who owned and ran a retail/wholesale company. The company had four brick-and-mortar locations and two e-commerce sites. They had been growing and made plans to open a new distribution center. The executive vice president was given the responsibility of planning, organizing and orchestrating the building out and merchandising of the new center. The CEO had complete confidence in the EVP, and with good reason — the EVP was a very talented executive who could get things done.
The CEO continued to do his normal "day job" and took little, if any, of a leadership role in the building out of the new distribution center. The EVP had a plan, but the plan was incomplete. What created more of a problem was the fact that the plan was not being executed.
The distribution center was way behind schedule and over budget while still being in a state of chaos. They ended up bringing in an outside consultant to help them get things straightened out and ultimately open and functioning with standard operating procedures.
Had the CEO played a more active role, most of the problems could have been averted. He could have inspected whether the distribution center plan would work. Then, he could have continued to inspect what was expected to ensure the plan was being properly worked. There is an old truism that says if you have a good plan, “Work the plan and the plan will work.”
If there is an insufficient plan and that plan is not being well-executed anyway, most projects are doomed for chaos at best, failure at worst.
In the aforementioned book, “Execution,” the authors stress the importance of being “in the work." For example, the CEO of a manufacturing plant should spend a significant amount of time out of the office and on the plant floor.
Hewlett Packard coined a description for effective managers: managing by wandering around, aka MBWA. I remember in the 1990s, Bruce Nordstrom, CEO of Nordstrom, was known to spend two days a week in stores. What was he doing? He was observing, asking questions and listening, inspecting. He would do all this with customers, frontline employees and managers. He was inspecting what he was expecting, which enabled him to provide leadership to ensure expectations were being met or exceeded for everyone.
One of the benefits of CEOs inspecting what they are expecting is found in the next step.
When a CEO is inspecting and finding people doing things right, or even trying to meet expectations, it’s a perfect opportunity to affirm the executives or employees who are involved. Many high-achieving CEOs fail on this. They are always wanting more and better execution (I can relate!), and so they stop short of giving some affirmation for the good work that is being done.
It’s important to note that much of the time, you will get more of what you affirm. When an employee is given some sincere affirmation for their work, they will love it and want to get more. So, they will strive to execute expectations.
When employees are unwilling or unable to meet expectations, and the previous four steps have been performed effectively, the fifth step can provide what is needed for expectations to be met.
Accountability usually starts with a conversation. Let’s say expectations have been clearly set with an employee and they’ve received all the training and coaching they need in order to execute. Let’s also say there has been adequate inspection and affirmation if appropriate, and the employee is failing to meet expectations.
An accountability conversation should take place sooner than later. It may be appropriate to present progressive discipline. That can follow steps of:
- Formal verbal warning
- Written warning
- Final written warning
Depending on the severity of the failures on the employee’s part, this process can go faster, skipping steps.
It’s been my experience that, often times, accountability is the step that motivates the employee to do what they could have done all along.
For many years I have performed and taught these five steps. When done well, they are extremely effective in getting things done and bringing out the best in people. Having said that, there are still times I blow it on one or more of the steps.
For example, I had once given a leader a weeklong project. There was a good deal of complexity to it. The work was to begin on Monday and be completed by the end of the workday on Friday. We met first thing Monday morning to kick off the project. I was very confident in the leader and the team. I did not inspect what I expected until Wednesday afternoon, when I discovered they had forgotten a critical step that should have happened on Tuesday. The mistake was an accident that could have been made by anyone. However, if I had done my job well, I would have touched base with the leader at least twice daily.
The accountability was for me. I spoke with the leader and his team and apologized for not executing my part effectively. We figured things out. The project was not completed until the following Monday, one day late. That was because of me and the team appreciated that I took ownership for that.
It’s important that if the CEO does not perform one or more of the five steps above, their best course of action is to own it and apologize.
I welcome your comments or questions below!
About the Author
Glenn Hansen is a Partner at OneAccord. For 25 years, he was a highly successful retail management senior executive in the consumer electronics industry. Achieving extraordinary results and leading profitable sales and retail stores, he builds teams with synergy. He has led teams to success in vastly different sales environments for both products and services.
Glenn is an exceptional sales trainer and motivator. He has a talent for building effective strategies amidst complex challenges, and takes strategy to execution to achieve and exceed goals. In all, Glenn is a best-in-class results-getter. Learn more about Glenn here. Contact him directly by email or (714) 654-5134.
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