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Execution, Execution, Execution

I recently conducted a strategy review for a mid-sized client that had a 15-year history of moderate growth culminating in a disastrous 2009. In looking over the past strategy efforts, it became clear that they were not making the progress on the details of their plans. They were usually hitting their financials, except in 2009, but it seemed to be more by shear momentum, brute force and luck than by following their plan.

This was not a surprise when I talked with the CEO. He felt that executing the strategy had always been a challenge for them. His question back to me was, "How do we focus on execution so that we can build a bulletproof plan?"

My answer did not focus on a single silver bullet. My experience has highlighted three keys to execution success — Strategy, Structure, and Talent

  1. Strategy: A strategy is more than mission, vision, values, and a SWOT. Strategy execution requires a detailed roadmap with capabilities/action steps, clear accountability, time-frames, resources, and contingencies. Stakeholders must be identified, communication plans established. The outcome is a clearly defined path forward — a path in which all key players can see their role and know whatís expected of them. This allows employees to be self-correcting since they know the direction and priorities. For more on building a strategy see Keys to a Successful Strategy.
  2. Structure: This is about the process used to articulate the strategic plan. The long-range plan needs to be broken down into a series of business plans. The objectives from the business plan are cascaded down through the organization so that everyone is linked and aligned. Progress on the objectives is reviewed regularly, communicated constantly and updated as needed. Strategy becomes a process, a living thing, and not a one-time event that produces credenza fodder.
  3. Talent: Weíve heard it from some of the top business minds of our times: If you donít get the talent right, your business will never achieve itís strategic potential. Getting the talent right means having the right people (people with the mission-critical competencies), in the right roles (the pivotal, strategic roles), doing the right things (see Structure above). A thorough review of talent coordinated with your annual business planning is the best way to assure this key to execution is addressed. For a how-to summary, see Assessing Your Organization's Talent.

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Competent Competency Models

Once upon a time, back in the good olde graduate school days, I was involved in a project to develop a competency model for the Store Managers of a retail tire chain. After the initial data gathering, we were confounded to find a very wide disparity in what different Store Managers described as the behaviors needed for success. There did not seem to be any agreement . . . . Which was going to make it very difficult to create a useful competency model.

Lo and behold, a deeper analysis of the data found that one factor accounted for the variance in the data — store financial performance. It turned out that of top performing store managers described their leadership behaviors very differently than low performing managers.

The moral of my story: A competency model is not a competency model is not a competency model. To identify the behaviors required to drive business performance, do not develop models based on the input from just anybody. Otherwise, you will get a model of behaviors that do nothing for business results. Model the behaviors of high potential, high performing employees.

OK, that sounds like a paradox. How do you identify high performers without a competency model of high performance? Not a problem. Think about it — you know who the high potentials are. Who get's picked or recommended for all the top projects? To or for whom does everyone want to work? Who drives and welcomes change? If they left, who would be difficult to replace in kind? Go to these folks to build and validate the competency models.

Some other lessons of experience on building competency model:

  1. Future-focus the competency models. Create models that describe success for the future of your business, not for the present or the past. Look at the strategy and determine the demands the strategy places on people in critical roles. Get the input from high performers in pivotal roles. High potentials usually can do a good job of seeing ahead clearly (a competency that correlates with performance and potential at all elvels, by the way).
  2. Look for similarities in competencies across functions and job levels, not differences. Unless you want to reinforce silos and build barriers to collaboration, each function and job should NOT have unique definitions of success. Do not use job descriptions as the basis for selecting competencies. Build models for roles, not jobs or functions.
  3. Don't start from scratch. Every company likes to think they are different so expects that their competency models should be unique. The evidence suggests otherwise so build on what others have developed and validate it for your business. Many choices are out there. My favorite is the Lominger Leadership Architect tools because of the research on competencies correlated with high performance across organization levels and the extensive information on developing competencies.
  4. Involve employees from across the business and from different levels. You'll end up with stronger models and increased commitment to their use. Do not, I repeat, do not have HR develop the models in isolation.

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What's Wrong with This Picture?

A company is one of the fastest growing in the region. They provide proprietary, high-tech solutions to a global market untainted by the recent downturn. Their website touts the accomplishments of their scientists, their industry leadership fueled by innovation, the capabilities of their team and the amazing results they've obtained by their ability to collaborate with customers. Testimonials on their website indicate that customers chose this firm because of their knowledge and expertise.

Clearly, the greatest source of this company's competitive advantage is its talent and the intellectual property that the talent creates. Therefore, you would expect this company to have a talent management system clearly focused on creating and sustaining this core capability along with leadership willing to invest in talent. Right?

Wrong! In reality, the Talent Management function is a one-man band and does not hold a seat on the top management team. Talent is not listed as a core responsibility of any of the top management team. The annual employee survey showed critical engagement gaps over several years but nothing was ever built into the budget to address the issue. HR has to go begging for even minor expenditures. In contrast, the firm attends and hosts high-priced industry events in posh resorts around the world.

Surprised? I'm not. Unfortunately, I see this picture repeated all too often, particularly in high growth companies or in companies that have had to survive for years by cost-cutting and downsizing. In the first case, the single focus has been on the acquiring customers and talent. Retaining and growing talent hasn't been on the radar screen. In the second case, the leaders have forgotten what it takes to handle and sustain growth. They're still trying to cut their way to prosperity and are probably still rewarded for doing so.

In both cases, leadership has to take the time to change the picture or growth will stall. They must confirm (or reconfirm) the role that talent plays in the business's growth. Strategy comes first but the next questions have to be, "What does the strategy demand of the organization" and "What levers must be pulled to meet that demand?" Investment must be made in sustaining and growing talent if these firms want to sustain and grow their businesses.

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5 Steps to Getting the Resources You Need to Lead in a Flat World
By Aparna Suresh
President - Organic Organization Development, llc

In an increasingly flatter world, cultural intelligence has become a critical leadership competency as cultural diversity plays an increasingly bigger role in business. Pittsburgh hosting the G-20 last September and President Obama hosting India's Prime Minister for his first state dinner has brought home just how important it is for leaders to know how to lead across cultures. If you're a business leader tasked with leading a culturally diverse workforce or negotiating/collaborating with business leaders from other countries or cultures, here are 5 steps you can take right now to get the resources you need to lead more effectively across cultures:

  1. First, know where you're coming from. We all have our own worldviews which are driven by the cultural values we acquire through family, school and the societies that shape us. These cultural values shape our behavior day in and day out. Have trouble believing this? The next time you crack a joke at a meeting keep in mind that humor is used in the workplace primarily in Anglo cultures like the U.S., U.K. and Australia, and would be considered no joking matter (pun intended) in a country like Germany where it would be considered frivolous.
  2. Acknowledge that you probably have a long way to go. While America has often been described as a melting pot of different cultures, itís also famous for being very insular about other countries and cultures. Pittsburgh in particular is known for having a highly homogeneous population that is relatively resistant to multi-cultural influence. In plain English, this means that diversity studies show that it's more difficult for minorities to make a mark in Pittsburgh. This doesn't mean that Pittsburgh can't change, just that it will take more effort to get there.
  3. Next, know where you want to be. Decide on the business outcomes you're looking for in terms of the business value you want to generate through using cultural intelligence. Do want to improve productivity through better multi-cultural employee communication and engagement, foster innovation through leveraging diversity, or know how to approach a negotiation to clinch a deal with your counterpart in another country?
  4. Now that you've defined the potential business values/outcomes you're in a position to build the business case for the initiatives you need to implement to lead with cultural intelligence. This is vital to get buy-in for the commitment and resources you will need to implement the initiative you're proposing, such as a multi-cultural leadership development program to give your managers the perspective and skills they need to effectively engage a multi-cultural workforce, or collaborate/negotiate effectively with their counterparts around the world.
  5. Finally, tap the right expertise to effectively implement your initiative. The person you hire to implement your initiative should have actually lived and worked in other countries and cultures. All too often I've encountered diversity consultants from the mainstream country/culture who have never needed to practice what they preach, because they have never had to really live and adapt to another culture in order to survive and thrive in the long run. You need to get someone who has walked their talk.
  6. Aparna Suresh is a leadership and diversity consultant who enables business leaders to lead across cultures and shatter glass ceilings. You can learn more about Aparnaís unique career journey from being a member of that rare species, a female engineer who has worked for Fortune 500 companies in Asia, Europe & North America, to a leadership and diversity consultant at www.OrganicOD.com.

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