In football, the team manager cannot take a hands-off approach after a strategy has been identified and the players have been picked.
The team manager also ensures that every player plays their part and makes decisions to replace players who are not performing as the game progresses.
In my previous article, I made reference to the report by The Economist Intelligence Unit entitled Why Good Strategies Fail – Lessons for the C-suite.
In that report, Michael Astrue, the former US commissioner for social security, was quoted as saying:
Commonly (in the public sector), people put strategy together from a theoretical perspective. They have not factored in practical matters such as operational complexity and budget constraints. You need to have people at the top who can integrate all those things. It is a big issue.
While Astrue makes references to the public sector in the United States, I doubt that the observation will be any different for the private sector.
In the book Execution, Ram Charan, a world-renowned business adviser, author and speaker feels that the fundamental problem stems from the fact that people think that execution is a tactical side of business and something that leaders delegate while they focus on the perceived “bigger” issues.
It is not surprising that many C-suites fail at executing if we subscribe to Arun Sarin’s (the former CEO of Vodafone) take on leadership.
In a lecture at his alma mater, the Haas School of Business at the University of California in 2009, Sarin had this to say:
To be a good leader, you have to be a good strategic leader, a good operational leader and a good people leader. The big deal about leadership is that you need to be good at all three simultaneously.
It is extremely rare to find C-suites that are adept at all three and most of the time as Ram Charan suggests, execution of strategy is delegated down the line.
The challenge is sometimes further compounded when the organisation structure is such that it breeds more in-fighting and turf protection rather than addressing the needs of the market that the strategy was intended for.
When there is no involvement from the leadership, the managers entrusted with strategy execution will come across as little Napoleons, stuck in their old ways, who will put up roadblocks or come up against protective business unit heads who may be concerned about the internal cannibalisation of their respective businesses with any new strategy implementation.
So, what is the C-suite expected to do? In essence, the C-suite needs to get involved in the execution process.
However, it is important to note that being involved should not be confused with micromanaging. That will be like the team manager of the football team donning the team jersey and getting on to the pitch with the rest of the players.
The C-suite should instead provide the necessary support and pave the way for the manager entrusted with the execution to be successful.
The most important task for the C-suite is to ensure accountability by conducting periodic and rigorous reviews of the implementation status of the strategies.
The review has to incorporate two-way candid discussions to understand the challenges and bottlenecks that are preventing the execution of a particular strategy.
The C-suite needs to ensure that little Napoleons and turf-protecting business unit heads tow the line in the interest of the company.
As in football, those who do not play ball will need to be managed – something that many leaders fail to do.
C-suites who have the “Just get it done” mentality simply do not understand the complexities of organisational behaviour and possibly lack the people and operational pillars that Sarin talked about. These C-suites will often be left wondering why their strategies have not been implemented.
Running a successful football team is difficult. Funding and attracting talent will always be a challenge to football teams (and companies).
However, every match day, team managers seem to understand what needs to be done to ensure optimal performance on the pitch.
Deciding on the best strategy, picking the right players and ensuring that they understand what their roles are, tweaking the strategy as the game progresses and replacing players that are not performing are key elements in successful execution.
I have always wondered whether there is some sort of correlation between the performances of teams whose managers pace and spur their teams on along the touchline as compared to those who sit passively on the bench.
While I’ll keep you guessing whether I was referring to football teams or companies, I know that, whatever the outcome of such a study, the C-suite can learn a thing or two about how a football team functions when it comes to strategy execution.