In a company’s daily business, bridging between strategy and execution is one of the most — if not the most — daunting challenges. Indeed, in a recent survey of more than 400 global CEOs it was revealed that the ability to execute strategy was their number one challenge, ahead of innovation, geopolitical instability and top-line growth. More often than not, best-laid plans go awry because big visions are met with an unclear road map for execution, as bold visions and meticulous plans get lost in translation.
In today’s world as the markets become increasingly crowded and gaining an edge over the competition becomes all the more paramount, there has been a focus on finding leaders who are “visionaries” — those whose big ideas bring about new opportunities to innovate and transform industries. They look at the minds of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk and believe that it was their ability to come up with creative solutions and develop groundbreaking strategies that saw them succeed but, in reality, those ambitious ideas would have gone nowhere without a well-conceived path for execution to match them. It’s easy to see why the ability to execute would be such an undervalued trait in comparison to strategy: execution lacks the flashy characteristics of innovation that accompanies strategising.
The aforementioned entrepreneurs are certainly not commonly known for their supply chain management, back-end redundancy or robust safety and regulatory compliance processes, and yet not taking aspects such as these into consideration when strategising would have inevitably resulted in a less than successful execution of their vision. The rewards execution brings are not as immediately apparent as those that come from strategy, meaning many business leaders who are seeking to create results often underestimate the importance of following through.
Strategy vs. Execution
In order to be an effective leader, strategy and business execution are uniquely important. Strategic skills allow a leader to create policies, establish direction and determine to effectively allocate resources to achieve a larger goal. Execution, on the other hand, involves the tactical, practical skills needed to put a plan in motion. Strategic thinking is what allows a leader to craft the future of an organisation, but the tactical skills of execution are necessary to bring the vision to life. There’s truth to the adage: a strategy is only as good as its implemenation.
A leader capable of strategy and execution can not only understand the objective or goal, but also break it down into operational pieces. This allows for the planning of actionable steps and realistic resource allocation in order to achieve the desired outcome. Unfortunately, in developing their management style many leaders place a focus on developing their strength in either knowing what to do (strategy) or in how to do it (execution), but not both. By learning to be balanced in both areas, one can weigh strategic thinking with tactical realities and vice versa, allowing for the creation of a visionary strategy that can realistically be executed.
The best leaders are able to balance strategic thinking and tactics, building a company that works not only for its shareholders, but its customers and employees as well. While having the vision to build a strategy that embodies your organisation is great, if you don’t have the chops to turn that strategy into an actionable plan it’s just a pipe dream. Many great visions fall apart before they even get off the ground because of a lack of planning, but those who are successful create value for all of their stakeholders.
One example of this is Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks. His vision for the company was one that extended beyond simply selling coffee — he wanted to create another place outside the home and work that people could gather and build a sense of community. This idea was the cornerstone of the creation of the business, but it was his execution that saw the company truly become a juggernaut and change the face of the coffee industry. Schultz understood that in order to create an aura of conviviality and connection that would justify a premium price on coffee, it would need to extend through every aspect of the business, from layout and decor to even bathroom design. But perhaps most importantly, Schultz knew that his vision would never be executed to the level he wanted without the cooperation and support of the people working behind the counter. They needed to understand the core of the company’s business, feel a part of something bigger that would enable an authentic atmosphere in each and every store.
This employee-first approach has been key, who are actually called “partners” instead of the former. Every partner from corporate workers to part-time staff receive stock options and health insurance, helping them to feel both invested in the brand as well as taken care of by it. This has been a consistent approach across the ebbs and flows of the market. For example, during the Great Recession rather than cut costs wherever possible, Starbucks invested in staff training from coffee tasting to even dual credit higher education courses. It’s clear to see, when a leader properly balances strategy and execution, everybody benefits.
Achieving Strategic and Executional Excellence
It’s imperative as a leader to recognise that the ability to develop strategy is irrelevant if it can’t be followed through to the executional phase.
An agile leader is someone who is adept at crafting and executing organisational strategy — breaking down the larger vision into actionable steps, establishing a plan to track progress, ensuring the right stakeholders are placed in the right roles, empowering and trusting teams to get the job done, and remaining flexible to address any challenges or priority shifts that come up. It is important to note that strategy is different from tactics, and in order to achieve the most successful and impactful results a strategy should be the company’s driving force.
Having a good strategy increases the likelihood of having a good execution. Yes, having a good strategy alone isn’t enough to win, but your ability to execute well depends on how good your strategy is and how well it’s understood by the entirety of your business. Strategy and business execution are both vital to any organisation’s success, and leaders must be ready, willing, and able to craft the vision and make it actionable. Becoming strategically and executionally excellent is the answer to giving your organisation a competitive edge, which can improve engagement and drive results. Leaders who master both strategy and execution can build a truly great business. They have the ability to create a bold but executable strategy, ensure that the company is investing behind the change, and motivate the entire organisation to follow them on the journey.