Execute…or be Ex-e-cu-ted

There is no doubt that one of the top five lessons I have learned in business is that of execution. And in fact at times it might be number one.

Having worked for a company in the first half of this decade that was fairly good at execution—I have learned how to spot execution when it exists, and more importantly—when it doesn’t. The CEO of our parent company felt execution was so paramount to successful business that he developed The Execution Award for managers who demonstrated effective focus, clarity of management, and clear speed in getting things done. Unfortunately, he would tell you that he could count on one hand the number of times he gave the award away across the various business that were part of the organization. My company was able to secure the award once. And we thought we were good at it.

Yes, execution is elusive.

When it exists, people explain things simply to one another, they reach clear agreements, and they hold one another accountable for results. You can observe it in those who are successful in gaining clear commitments from others, those who write down steps and dates and ensure everyone knows what they are, and then follows up to see to it what was promised truly gets done.

You can also see when execution is lacking—such as in these examples:

A president asks his team at a meeting when something will be completed, and the answer from one of the vice-presidents is “a couple of weeks.” The president then says, “Good—as long as it’s not going to be six weeks.” No one writes anything down and the conversation moves on.

(The problem here is that the president accepted a vague answer, did not write down a precise commitment date, and let the conversation move on without coming to a clear agreement on who, what, and when)

Or two, a manager sends an email to three recipients and addresses remarks to no one in particular—saying she needs some certain result by sometime next week.

(Here again, the lack of specifics cause each of the three recipients to think “Hmmm, certainly one of the other two will respond to this—since it wasn’t directed at me personally.”)

And so it goes. Each of three recipients all go on thinking ‘someone else’ will handle it—and almost certainly no one will.

Or three, the supervisor of a work group needs to know that a brand new process has been used in 100% of the week’s production schedule to meet a quality guarantee. The ideal question would be something like “Was this new process used from the start of Shift ‘A’ this week—and continuously in every shift since right up through today?” Instead, the supervisor who isn’t practicing a solid discipline of execution attempts to ask the question—but expresses it instead as a statement: “And, the new process has been used from the start of Shift ‘A’ this week? His trailing tone leaves it hanging there as a confusing combination between a weak question and an even weaker statement. Its easy for the employees to silently nod their head, but the real answer is never flushed out.

Execution simply means getting things done. And as you can see, it has a very clear connection with a person’s ability to communicate clearly and with intention. You must use direct language. You must look people in the eye when you ask them questions—and get clear agreement. Assumptions cannot be made. Dates and promises are to be written down. Follow-up is to be consistent. And rewards afforded to those who execute—and withheld with those that do not.

Once you begin understanding and recognizing when good execution is present—and when it is not—you will be more purposeful in your dealings with people, with your communication, with your follow up, and with your attention to results.

It is, after all, what separates those who do—from those who do not.

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