Three keys to outstanding execution.

Why initiatives fail... and how they succeed

The world of sport is replete with tales of unlikely heroes and last-gasp turnarounds. Whether Sam Curran’s magnificent six sixes will save England in their second test with Sri Lanka, remains to be seen, but most fans still remember Botham’s Ashes, Ainslie’s America’s Cup, Sheringham and Solskjaer’s extraordinary last-minute brace against Bayern to take the treble in ‘99.

But while the players take the headlines, it’s often the leadership off the field that deserves more of the applause. Changing the captaincy, bringing in new talent, the 11th hour substitutions, or addressing more fundamental issues of focus and organisation.

In 2007 the England Rugby team began their World Cup campaign with a 36-0 thrashing by South Africa. By all reports, there was disagreement on tactics, friction between players and coaches, and “chaos and confusion” in the camp, all of which dramatically undermined performance on the field. But in a series of unprecedented meetings, players and coaches thrashed out their differences, agreeing a consistent way forward that took them right through to the nail-biting final, where they lost again to South Africa, but by a far finer margin.

You will rarely see a clearer demonstration of the absence, and the impact, of a united leadership.

A few years ago, I was involved in a strategic programme for a large retailer. The objective was to change the way they worked with their most important suppliers: from short-term aggressive trading, to a collaborative approach based around mutual long-term growth.

The senior team had a spectrum of views: some were Doves, others were Hawks, so depending on which voices attended which meetings, the project team got different, often conflicting steers. And while the initiative did deliver some gains, it fell short of its ambitions, just like the England team at the start of that 2007 campaign.

Since then, I've worked on, initiated and led many strategic projects, and in every case, the success of the project has been in direct proportion to the alignment and commitment of the leadership team. In your organisation, there will probably be between 2 and 20 strategic initiatives under way right now. So, ask yourself:

How many of your projects are getting consistent input from all of the leadership team?

What portion of the leadership team could stand up right now and not only explain, but evangelise about each of the initiatives?

If you asked each member of the leadership team to articulate the biggest challenges facing each initiative, how closely would they match?

If the answer to any of the above is less than 100%, you are failing your teams and risk failing to deliver your strategy. These are the three steps you need to take:

1. Champion clarity

Any project team needs clarity on objectives, priorities and freedoms, and as a leader, it is your job to make sure they get it. The clearer and more consistent you are as a leadership team about the outcomes you want, whom you expect to deliver them, and when you want them by, the more likely you are to get them. Ask your colleagues, “what is the one key message we need them to take away?”

2. Draw out disagreement

Silence is rarely assent, more often it's unconvinced disengagement. Conversely, vocal disagreement is good – it shows passion and commitment. So force the debate with your team. If you know a disagreement is likely, don’t shy away from it, prepare for it – get a good facilitator and structure a session to tackle it head on and resolve it. If nothing else, you owe it to your teams to sort out your differences instead of cascading them through the organisation.

3. One responsible, all accountable

Make sure the whole leadership team feel accountable for the outcomes of strategic projects, not just the owner. Are each of them suggesting ways their people can help achieve the goal? Are any of them holding back talent and resources to hit departmental targets instead? In which case, how do you make sure those dysfunctions get recognised and resolved?

In strategy, as with sport, the talent on the field is only one part of the recipe for success. Leadership off the field, specifically the engagement, commitment and alignment of the leadership team, is fundamental if you’re going to win the game.