Execution and Implementation of Strategy

19 Jun 2014

“At most companies, strategy is a highly abstract concept – often confused with vision or aspiration – and is not something that can be easily communicated or translated into action. But without a clear sense of where the company is headed and why, lower levels in the organisation cannot put in place executable plans.” 

At  the corporate level  research has shown that three out of five companies are weak in execution of strategy. Those that are good invariably show superior performance.

Leadership is key to execution. I have mostly downplayed leadership and emphasized  management, South Africa needs managers and not noisy leaders. I have placed  leadership as one of the skills needed in management. However, when we are specifically focusing on action, embracing change, then there needs to be emphasis on leadership.

Authorities agree, there are two major aspects to leadership:

First, leadership is about activity and not position.  You either exercise it or you don’t.  It does not require a title and is not necessarily reserved for people at the top.  Leaders arise among the community, among children, among voluntary community workers, among one’s staff etc.

Second, leadership is about change and not about management.

To clarify, a quote from Jim Kouzes, a management authority, gave the following difference between management and leadership:

“Management is typically described as planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling. These practices have to do with keeping things in order and making sure everything is well- run and efficient.

Leadership  is more about movement and going places and doesn’t necessarily have to do with anything being well organized.  Often it may seem chaotic and disorganized because you are trying something new or going in a new direction.  Things are unknown and the process is often messy.  It is not as neat and tidy as management is often described”…….now we know what happens when  political leaders start managing!

Leaders then are needed to execute change, what is interesting,  they don’t have to be a manager  to undertake change. The stereotypical manager maybe the problem. A hedgehog as opposed to a fox as Clem Sunter would say. Mostly implementing change is done by the manager, he might be the owner of a small business.

In Lan Liu’s book “Conversations on Leadership,” from his discussions  with some of the leading authorities on the subject of management and leadership, he  summarises these discussions into  eight disciplines of leadership. These are;

  1. Connecting with people
  2. Learning from failure
  3. Reflecting on experience
  4. Thinking deeply
  5. Storytelling
  6. Being a teacher
  7. Knowing yourself
  8. Becoming yourself

These disciplines require an article on their own, but all us, hopefully that are reading this article, that are in some organisation, playing some leadership role, just reading the above ( pause a moment on each one) –  will bring to mind insights , they maybe disciplines but they are also truths.

Coaching in leadership

What if the manager fails at his leadership role….of a small business for instance. I have given advice in these situations  and it’s been where failure is not an option. Coaching is a powerful tool to bring about a change in the person. The person coached has to see for themselves what is needed, they have to learn from their experience.

More wisdom from our authorities  leadership cannot be taught , it can only be learnt from experience, not in the classroom, experience  needs reflection. A coach would  help with  reflection and with the steps needed to achieve outcomes. Coaching has one proviso, the person being coached must want to be coached, it is normally voluntary. Many people think they know it all –  and there are always good reasons why things are not working, the ego is sensitive and it is others that are usually at fault.

Three Categories

Three categories of organizations where execution/ implementation is “vital”:

1)            The single person who wants to start his own business,  become an SME (Small or Medium Enterprise)

2)            A responsibility centre within a larger organization.  It could be a workshop, a store, a branch or department.  It has a management team with someone that is accountable.

3)            The strategic plan of the whole business or organization.  It could be a multinational corporation.

Some entrepreneurs don’t like the term “Strategic planning”.  It is too academic for them. The fact is, if they have a successful organization, there is a strategic plan; even if it is only recognized by others – like academics .

The Decision

Before those leadership skills are brought in for execution/ implementation a decision has to be made.

  “Every success, every mishap, every opportunity seized or missed is the result of a decision that someone made or failed to make.”.

The above quote says it all, the decisions made should be informed, well thought out . The following steps help in the decision making process.

Who has the “D” – some person has to make the decision (D).  It is vitally important that all concerned with the implication of a decision know who is responsible for the decision. The person will ultimately be accountable for the outcome , if the “D” is shared, it may detract from accountability.  The CEO (Chief Executive Officer): he or she cannot point to anyone else if the decision was wrong.  So it better be their decision.  Accountability goes with the  “D”.

There are suggested steps to making  a decision:

Recommend: The proposal (the matter is to be decided) is on the table.  Don’t make it personal yet or the decision might be about personalities.

Input:  Input needs to be provided by those  involved – what the decision will mean to them,  it may need research, analysis or consultation. Not involving key players in the input phase could lead to difficulty in implementation later.

Agree:  Consensus among all the players is not necessarily a prerequisite. Key players must be informed, given the opportunity to present their input. The decision is going to lead to action and consensus amongst strong personalities could delay action. The big “D” will remain with one individual.  Firms or individuals that make progress and achieve do make mistakes (failures), that is inevitable for people who move faster than others and achieve more.  Successful achievers don’t call them failures, but learning curves or set-backs – losing the odd battle doesn’t mean  losing the war.

Decide:  The organization or individual commits to action.  The person with the “D” has the responsibility and authority to proceed. Speed is also important, frustrating when things take forever and momentum is lost.

Performance (successful execution):  an informed decision has been made. A possible stumbling block to performance is the homework has not been done. It might have been a good decision but not carried out well, so we look at key areas for achieving a successful execution?

After the Decision, Key Area for Successful Execution

The Human Factor

Achievements are made through human-beings.  They have two major components:  their head and their heart.  The head is the detail, inventing, engineering, costs, plans, resources etc. – can be boring without the inspiration that comes from the heart – the emotional side of you.  Academics don’t often succeed in  being very successfully in making things happen, e.g. making money, there is too much  “head” and not enough” heart”.  The need for inspiration is neglected.  The big picture, is not communicated, the pride and joy doesn’t exist and there is embarrassment about excitement and passion. All areas of the heart. These emotions  are drivers in making things happen.

Information Flow (communication)

A critical success factor in the execution of strategies is that all those who should know what is going on are kept in the picture.  There is no room for destructive rumour mongering.  Staff know who is responsible for what, what is to be achieved, what the firm’s values are etc. In South Africa at this point  in our history I make huge emphasis  on communicating values. The basic core moral values,e.g. respect, fairness, have fun and gratitude.  Then communicating purpose… the one bigger than just making money.

Traffic Managing

Taking a leaf out of the advertising industry, they have to achieve deadlines, bringing everything together for a promotional campaign. They have a  traffic manager to see this all happens.  There is a plan, there is a timetable of activities with a deadline.  Creative people are notoriously difficult, with mood swings, personal problems, unconventional behaviour, etc; so that the traffic manager has a hard time in putting it all together. The word urgency plays a part, deadlines have to be met, time is the driver or the pulling force. This is what the traffic manager has to focus on.

In other businesses the “master strategist” may be the traffic manager.  He or she may be the CEO,  the person does not need to be part of the management hierarchical structure. But they do have to have leadership qualities.

A topflight CEO was once asked what was the source of his success. He held up his hands and said, “I just keep pushing.”


There is feedback from the coal face to the decision makers and powers that be; this might be market intelligence, changes in the environment, sale-ability of product, action of the competitors, new opportunities.  Support is given to where the action is needed.  All the areas of the “value chain” for the product or service need to be working well and there is good communication between the different operations.  There is absolute clarity of information.


It goes without saying that successful execution needs motivated players.  It is important that the right people are placed in positions  they are qualified  and suited for.  They have the necessary self discipline; they are capable of motivating themselves. There is a fairness and respect for all. A  good example is set by the leaders at the top. This concerns conditions of employment, etc.


Strategy before structure is usually the order, but they are closely associated. In the corporate world the organization structure can be complex, especially in multinational organizations. Any structure, especially a  corporate structure is made up of “responsibility centres” – teams with a manager that carry out the tasks.  The complex areas arise from dual reporting in a matrix  structure.  The manager might report to a division head as well as to a functional head.  This is where information flow is vital or there is conflict; there must be clarity as to what the responsibilities are and who is accountable for what.

The reporting system MIS (Managing Information System) arising from the responsibility centres is also part of the structure.


Leadership of self is especially important for the person going into business.  In the bigger organizations there are structures, programmes, there are teams of people in responsibility centres with someone accountable in each. Some organizations achieve and establish “blue ocean” strategies, etc.  Others achieve very little.  The difference is the achievers have good leaders doing the execution / implementation.

Autocratic leaders also achieve results – for a while – then good people leave and when the autocratic leader takes a break, invariably not much happens.  The command and control model has short term results.  Clear communication, in both information and who has the “D” and who is accountable is important. A  collaboration and communication model with authority, brings the best out of an integrated team.

A good leader/manager is never satisfied or so it appears. To sustain being on top, the  sense of reward only lasts while the execution is there to be done,  then  the next challenge is sought.  Those managers that bask in the glory of their achievements fall by the wayside.  “When you snooze you lose.”

Note from the author;  one tries to push the right  buttons in these articles, turn on some lights, hopefully. The core purpose of my writing is to bring some theory to the notice of the reader, maybe remind them of areas they could act on, in so doing I hope to bring more passion and joy to your job. Suggestions on subjects of interest for future articles would also be welcome.