The missing link between strategy and execution: Ongoing communication

In their now famous Fortune article, “Why CEOs Fail,” Ram Charan and Geoffrey Colvin explain the factor that they estimate trips up 70 percent of chief executives:

It’s bad execution. As simple as that: not getting things done, being indecisive, not delivering on commitments.

The concept of execution—just doing it—sounds simple enough. The reality is much more complex for CEOs, because they do little actual executing themselves. Instead, they have to find a way to help other people execute.

How do they do that?

It goes without saying that a clear strategy comes first. For many CEOs, this is the easy part. The tough part is handing off that strategy to the team and helping each employee see him- or herself in it.

Back when I was a novice CEO, I was shocked every time I ran up against this challenge. I’d explain a new plan or initiative and employees would often go right back to what they’d been doing before. I soon learned I couldn’t just announce our strategy once or twice and expect it to sink in. I had learned the secret to getting strategy executed: I had to communicate about it almost constantly.

Without crisp, ongoing articulation from the CEO, strategy won’t drive the daily work of employees. Individual and team agendas will take control, which leads to the misalignment and poor execution that’s rampant in corporate America.

Here are five quarterly communication touchpoints to guide you as you drive execution in your own company. These presume that a strategy is in place and has been shared with the team. With that done, use these touchpoints to turn the plan into focused action.

Communication point #1: What is the plan?

First, explain the near-term implications of the strategy: the plan for the quarter. I recommend that CEOs start each quarter by breaking strategy into 5–7 priorities for the company and then publishing those goals to the entire team.

When you share these goals with employees, reiterate how they support the strategy. Why did we set that revenue goal? Why is it a priority to improve our Net Promoter Score this quarter? Why are we launching this new service now?

Consider, too, explaining any goals that were considered but deemed not critical for this quarter. As organizational psychologist Nick Tasler points out, when leaders also explain what the strategy isn’t, employees are more likely to come away with a better-defined conception of what it is.

Be sure to communicate this plan to the whole company, whether it’s via email, an all-hands, or a town-hall meeting. Many CEOs make the mistake of explaining the plan to leadership and expecting it to cascade down the organization intact, but this usually turns into a game of Telephone, including the predictably garbled results.

Output: Quarterly priorities communicated to entire team and published somewhere accessible.

Communication point #2: What do you want me to do?

In the opening pages of one of my favorite books on the topic of execution, The Art of Action, Stephen Bungay tells the story of a charismatic CEO delivering his state-of-the-union to company leadership. Once he finishes:

Over on the left, a woman took the wandering microphone. . . . “I understand the strategy,” she said. “I agree with it. I think it’s a good one. . . . There are lots of initiatives. But . . .”—here she paused slightly—“what do you want me to do?”

Your employees will have the same question, even after you publish the quarterly priorities. Encourage everyone, from your leadership team to front-line workers, to set their own quarterly goals using the company priorities as a starting point, and make sure those goals are written down and shared.

Output: Published record of how all employees contribute to quarterly priorities.

Communication point #3: How is the plan going?

As the quarter unfolds, follow up on the plan every chance you get. Some leaders are reluctant to keep talking about it, for fear they’ll be seen as an elderly person roaming the halls and telling the same story over and over. Let that fear go. Talk about the plan, and then talk about it some more.

Weekly leadership meetings are the perfect place to reiterate. Structure these meetings around how the quarterly priorities are going and how the team can collaborate to keep executing them well.

Output: Weekly reiteration of quarterly priorities in leadership meeting.

Communication point #4: Did we follow the plan?

Keep everyone accountable for execution by closing out goals at the end of the quarter and debriefing on how they went.

Talk with the team about wins, losses, and lessons learned, and how all of that fits into longer-term aims. This sends the message loud and clear: the actions of the organization are expected to reflect company strategy. 

Output: Quarter-end discussion of performance against the quarterly priorities.

Communication point #5: What’s next?

Finally, close the loop at quarter-end by talking with your leadership team about upcoming strategic priorities. Do we need to tweak the strategy based on what happened in the past 90 days? If so, what does that mean for the next 90 days?

Communicate key takeaways from this discussion to the whole company, and then begin the cycle again by sharing goals for next quarter.

Output: New set of published quarterly priorities.

No matter how well or how often you communicate to your team, they’re going to be doing something all day. Make sure they’re doing the right things by talking openly and often about strategy, and what it means for every person on the team.

Join CUES CEO, John Pembroke, and Khorus CEO, Joel Trammell for a webinar discussing Optimizing Strategy and Execution on September 22nd at 1pm CT. Link the link below to register:

Click here to register!

Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell is a successful CEO and entrepreneur with a 20-year career in IT-related software companies. He is currently CEO of Khorus, which provides a business management system for CEOs ... Web: Details