How the Best Leaders Focus on Execution

Flow management concept.

Whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 100 company or a manager of a small team, execution is at the center of your success. However, just because it’s essential doesn’t mean we do it well or know precisely what it is. 

Execution is simply the carrying out of a plan, order, or course of action. After studying and coaching high-performing and low-performing leaders, the gap between goals and outcomes is execution.

The gap between goals and outcomes is execution.

The loftier the goals, the more difficult they are to achieve, so the execution gap is never truly eliminated. The highest performing leaders understand they aren’t trying to eliminate the gap; they are working relentlessly to shrink the gap through elite execution. 

No alt text provided for this image

Execution Isn’t Just Hard for You

Many external factors like a rapidly changing economy, technological advancements, hybrid-work environments, and multi-generations in the workforce make executing at the highest level more challenging than ever. 

When looking at internal factors, almost all execution failure comes down to leadership. Execution expert Monte Pedersen on a recent episode of The John Eades podcast, said, “leaders today must be execution accelerators and create a culture of execution.”

To shrink the execution gap, requires leaders to take ownership, translate strategy, and use time and attention to their advantage. Unfortunately, it turns out most managers aren’t doing it well. 

Research by Forbes found that 82% of Fortune 500 CEOs feel their organization is effective at strategic planning. Only 14% indicated to be effective at implementing the strategy. If that wasn’t sobering enough, Harvard Business Review found only 16% of top leaders were rated as very effective at either strategy or execution, and only 8% were effective at both. 

This execution thing is challenging not just for a few but for many. So if you are looking for ways to improve your team’s execution, here are a few pillars of effective execution to evaluate. 

5 Pillars of Effective Execution

The best leaders constantly look for ways to shrink the execution gap between their goals and outcomes. Here are five pillars to help you. 

1. Create Clarity Around the Purpose Trifecta

Every great team is clear about its purpose, and in Building the Best, I called it the purpose trifecta. Its name comes from horse racing, where a bettor can make a wager on the outcome of a race through a trifecta bet. The bettor must have all three horses picked- who will finish first, second and third in the correct order. If the horses do this, the best yields a higher payout than any other form of wager in the sport.  

The same is true for clarifying a purpose to lay the foundation for effective execution. The purpose trifecta is made up of values, vision, and mission. These tend to be evergreen and rarely falter because the strategy may change, but the purpose will not. 

The strategy may change, but the purpose won’t. 

Clarifying these three cornerstones will increase your odds of team buy-in and successful execution. 

2. Define Stretch Goals with Deadlines

The verb form of the word team means coming together as a group to achieve a common goal. Setting a clear goal for your team is instrumental in attaining your mission and vision. However, the team is far more likely to succeed if the goal is specific and each team member gets behind it. Research by Dr. Gail Matthews found people are 42% more likely to achieve a goal if it’s written down. 

Have a stretch goal for your team that has a deadline. I use a formula in our leadership workshops that’s simple:

Clear objective + Completion Date + Carrot = Team Goal

The fastest path to improve execution is defining the targets for your team or individuals. 

3. Have a Clear Plan and Strategy 

Once we have a stretch goal defined, planning and strategy enter the picture. For a football coach, this would be their game plans, playbook, and formations. For a sales manager, this would be their messaging, compensation plans, sales process, and targeting of accounts. 

Monte Pedersen believed strategy is where most managers make mistakes. He said, “The #1 cause of execution failure from leaders is they don’t effectively translate strategy across the organization or team.”  

Pederson is right because executing without a plan or strategy is nothing more than hoping success will happen. While it’s possible success does happen, it certainly won’t have any consistency. 

Execution without a plan or strategy is nothing more than hoping success will happen. 

Using performance management tools like Peoplebox to house OKRs or Asana to track tasks and actions is essential in the modern workplace to be clear on planning and strategy, so it bleeds into execution. 

4. Make Modification in the Moment

Mike Tyson famously said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” One of the critical pillars of execution is knowing that plans will change, and making modifications at the moment is essential. Leaders who are slow to adjust or pivot will be left behind and will hold their team back from being successful.

Adjusting, pivoting, and being flexible are requirements for leaders to be successful today.  

If that wasn’t enough, if you are going to create a culture of execution, you can’t let things go beyond the moment of impact. For example, if someone on a team is failing to meet the team’s execution standards, they must know. The longer leaders let it slide, the longer it will take to recover. 

Have the courage to modify the plan based on new information and be willing to communicate with your team when they fall short. 

5. Align Team Members and Resources 

Many organizations fail to properly allocate resources (time, people, money) to implement strategies successfully. This causes teams to splinter and go at different speeds and in alternative directions.  

To counter this, yearly, quarterly, and monthly alignment sessions or what some call “strategic planning sessions” are essential. These dedicated times allow leaders to work on the business as much as in the business. To take a step back with their team to identify where they need to start, stop, or continue doing. 

Closing

Regardless of your role, execution is at the center of your success. Ideas are great, but action will always be more important. If you focus on these five pillars, you will be on your way to shrinking the gap between your goals and optimal outcomes.  

John’s New Book Sign up to get early access to John’s new book. By doing so, you will be entered to win a free signed copy when it’s released Sign up here.

Free Downloadable Coaching Cheatsheet There is nothing easy about coaching. So we put together a list of eight of the best coaching questions to help you. Download it for free here.

About the Author John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades.

How to Lead a High Performing Team

Innovation and creative idea concept

Traditionally, people were promoted into leadership positions because they were viewed as a top individual contributor, a type-A extrovert, and/or a supremely confident professional. This results from what’s called a “promote to retain” strategy implemented by many organizations. 

While retaining top talent is vitally important, it’s also critical for organizations to promote people into positions of leadership that can drive performance and make a positive impact on the people they get the opportunity to lead.

There is one predictor of leaders like this regardless if they were a top individual contributor or not, and it’s not where organizations have previously focused. Leaders who have a servant’s heart sustain positive business results and achieve high employee engagement scores.  

After studying so many leaders with a servant’s heart in all different industries, roles, and backgrounds, it turns out they are doing many things right to have a high performing team. It’s what I refer to as “The Great 8 to Lead Your Best.” These are a list of things which by themselves are important, but they tend to compound and build upon each other. Here they are with a brief description of each to help you leverage them with your team as well.

No alt text provided for this image

Leadership Methodology

Over the last 30 years, methodologies have skyrocketed in popularity because they provide a backbone and structure to do any difficult job. From sales to research to project management and now leadership.  

Many of the best modern leaders we have studied either knowingly or unknowingly use a servant leadership methodology and use high levels of love and discipline in the way they lead. Robert Greenleaf said it well, “Servant leadership always empathizes, always accepts the person, but sometimes refuses to accept some of the person’s effort or performance as good enough.”

Relationships

The key to leadership is relationships because, without strong relationships, you can’t lead. High performing teams have bonds of mutual trust and respect. Where most leaders struggle is in understanding their responsibility to earn those two things. Long gone are the days of a title commanding respect. In today’s workplaces, a title should only be a reminder of your responsibility to your people.

While this seems obvious, many leaders skip relationship building and jump right into accountability to drive performance. This is a massive mistake because 

Rules without relationships lead to rebellion. 

Instead of assuming the relationships with your team members are strong, make time with each team member to ask this powerful question: “How are you and your family coping during the pandemic?”

Communication

Effective communication is at the heart of effective leadership. James Humes famously said, “The art of communication is the language of leadership.” Leaders of high-performing teams not only leverage the proper amount of communication but also are clear, concise, and conclusive. 

Effective leaders are great communicators.

The best modern leaders are constantly looking to improve how they communicate by evaluating their verbal, written, and body language.  

Shared Purpose

People in organizations don’t get burned out because of their work; they get burned out because they forget WHY they do the work they do. Because of this, leaders of high-performing teams are constantly reminding their teams of the deeper purpose behind the work they do.  

One of the biggest mistakes managers make is believing it’s not their job to connect their team to a deeper purpose. Don’t fall into poor thinking. Embrace the responsibility that you are the connector of cause.  

Standards

For teams to keep getting better, leaders must raise the bar of what’s expected. The reason is that team members’ behaviors and habits are always going to default to the bar set. The best modern leaders embrace this by relying on standards. 

A standard is defined as “what good looks like.” If you want to leverage standards, don’t define what good looks like, but to go beyond that and define what great looks like.

Be crystal clear, concise, and focused. Limit yourself to as few standards as possible so they can be remembered and applied.

Execution

The teams that execute their strategy and plans to near perfection will always achieve more than teams who do not. George Patton famously said, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.” As right as Patton is, it’s the leaders on a team who are responsible for removing barriers and putting people in the right positions to execute to the best of their abilities.  

Accountability 

Accountability is one of these words that has been hijacked. I define it in Building the Best as; the obligation of an individual or organization to account for its activities, accept responsibility for them and disclose the results in a transparent manner. 

It is the obligation of leaders to account for their actions and the actions of their people.  

Leaders are obligated to care for all their people equally and to serve their hearts, not their talents. 

 If you want to model how the best modern leaders leverage accountability, get comfortable with having difficult dialogues, which I wrote about here.

Coaching

One way a leader separates themselves from being a manager in today’s modern business environment is by coaching their people. A coach, by definition, is one who trains and instructs. The late great John Whitmore took the formal definition even further, saying:

“Coaching is unlocking people’s potential and helping them learn rather than teaching them.”

Leaders who coach have never been more critical than they are today. A strong, dedicated leader plays an integral role in elevating people to new heights, exactly how John Whitmore envisioned it.  

Closing

Every leader began somewhere. Regardless of whether you were promoted to a leadership position because of a “promote and retain strategy” or for some other reason, now is the time to embrace responsibility and develop servant’s heart. Once these are in place, work hard to understand, master, and apply “The Great 8 to Lead Your Best” on an ongoing basis.

Sign Up for the Ultimate Leadership Academy. Leadership is a journey and not a destination. To help you lead your best, join a leadership development program that actually works. Get Access.

Download the Leading Remote Teams Toolkit for free Here.

Take the Free Leadership Style Quiz? Join over 45k leaders and discover your current leadership style for free.

About the Author: John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades.