"My job at Honeywell International these days is to restore the discipline of execution to a company that had lost it."
So begins Execution, a crisp eye-opener of a book widely considered by many to be the best book written on a discipline that lies at very heart of success. And rightly so, because this book is the intellectual fruit of a collaboration between two of the last century’s finest business minds – Ram Charan, the highly sought-after management consultant and theorist, and Larry Bossidy, the award-winning and seasoned executive, moulded by more than thirty years of high-powered leadership at General Electric and AlliedSignal, and nearly a decade more as Chairman and CEO of Honeywell International.
Bossidy and Charan argue that the biggest pitfall facing businesses today is their inability to execute. Far from being unable to attract the brightest minds, innovate consistently or shave costs to reach a new zenith of efficiency, the slow decline and death of a business is often due to its inability to create an environment that encourages, recognizes and rewards the discipline of execution – the ability to coordinate human effort and generate outstanding results continuously, consistently and efficiently.
Real Leaders Get Dirty
"Many people regard execution as detail work that’s beneath the dignity of a business leader. That’s wrong. To the contrary, it’s a leader’s most important job."
Far from simply articulating a vision and parceling out work for subordinates to complete, the authors contend that it is a leader’s equal responsibility to both set direction and drive momentum in every aspect of their business – even if it takes them from formulating grand strategies to screwing in nuts and bolts, tweaking and fine-tuning operations designed to implement those very strategies. After all, only by serving in the trenches can you possibly begin to identify with, and understand the responsibilities of, the person you’re sending off to fight on your behalf.
This was a lesson learnt and painstakingly implemented by Steve Jobs and Jamie Dimon. These two very different men, both from two strikingly different backgrounds, eventually ended up learning the same lesson from the ground-up; Jobs as he was soldering motherboards in his garage alongside fellow members of the Homebrew Computer Club, Dimon as he and his mentor Sandy Weill spent days and nights poring over spreadsheets and calculating ratios to identify the companies that they would one day take over and combine to build Citigroup.
Wading into a ditch to do the work you’d rather have someone else do is humbling, and establishes a frame of mind that is focused on implementing solutions, leaving no problem unsolved, and looking for ways to simplify and minimize open-ended processes. All of these experiences are necessary components of the discipline of execution, and can be instrumental in the initial stages of setting up your new venture. A willingness to shoulder undesirable work and lead by example is a quality that is often over-promoted by many leaders but rarely exhibited in public.
The Bedrock of Your Church
"The three processes – people, strategy, and operations – remain the building blocks and heart of good execution. But as the economic, political, and business environments change, the ways in which they are carried out also change."
Here’s how it breaks down: Whenever you’re bringing a group of people together, either to build a project team, staff a division or flesh out your executive branch, seek and hire only top talent. Don’t settle for “next-best alternatives”, “good enough” solutions or people who can just “get the job done”.
In your quest for talent, be unreasonable, be demanding, and insist on only bringing on people who have demonstrated their worth and value to your endeavour. Anyone else is going to dilute your team’s capabilities.
While strategy can be important in providing a sense of direction for your business, it is the really just that – a sense of direction. It may provide some level of coordination between your team members and several different stakeholders, but it doesn’t solve the problems of execution on its own merits. It is just a tool, a set of organizing principles around which the leader coordinates the efforts of the people on her team. It can be a vision statement or a loose goal pegged for completion one year from now, but the real challenge will be to orient the skills, experiences and talents of the people on your team towards the end goal articulated by your strategy.
Which brings us to the very definition of operations – the essential third component that bridges the gap between the people you have recruited and the direction set by your strategy.
This term encompasses a whole swath of different things, from projects broken down into mini-projects, to progress meetings, deadline reviews, coffee breaks, drinks at the bar – anything that allows a leader to build and keep momentum going, but which also breaks down a high-level business strategy into specific, measurable goals and milestones that can be matched directly with the skillsets of the team and be made time-bound.
As the authors often allude, very often a failure to execute stems from an inability to translate a strategy into concrete, actionable steps that are then given to the right people who can be held accountable to them.
Seeing It In Action
"Putting an execution environment in place is hard, but losing it is easy."
When Larry Bossidy joined Allied Signal as its CEO in 1991, he found that the three core processes of the company – people, strategy and operations – were each independently advanced, but thoroughly disconnected from one another. Although the business was staffed with smart, highly talented people, they were sequestered within the company’s various business units, each of which had its own distinct culture and functioned as a semi-autonomous subsidiary.
Communication between the various business divisions was minimal and uncoordinated, which made it difficult for a single, unified business strategy to permeate across the company. Not everyone had the same view of the company and its priorities, nor did they necessarily understand and identify with any overarching strategy as it was articulated to them.
Bossidy started out by firing people who hadn’t established a drive to succeed and a track record for generating results, thereby keeping and promoting only the best talent within the business (People). He then focused on breaking down the siloed culture within each of AlliedSignal’s business divisions by creating lines of communications that cut across departments, and encouraging and forcing people from different departments to work together in order to formulate solutions and unite the different business divisions under the AlliedSignal name.
Once the entire organization was moving in unison, he focused on setting business priorities that required members from across the business to contribute and set accountability standards (Strategy). Projects were then designed with a specific focus in mind, and were constructed deliberately around the standards of accountability developed by the business leaders themselves. Results-oriented performance was strongly encouraged, recognized and rewarded; incompetence was stamped out ruthlessly (Operations).
His strategy worked. In just 8 years AlliedSignal had successfully merged with Honeywell International, tripled its operating margins to nearly 15 percent, raised its return on equity from just over 10 percent to 28 percent, and had delivered an almost ninefold return for shareholders.
The discipline of Execution works. Although this book may not introduce new concepts to the seasoned manager, its principles are sound and the examples thorough and illuminating. The challenge of creating and entrenching a culture of execution within your business may require you to get your hands dirty, but the process works and generates manifold rewards. Some people will suffer and fall by the wayside, but under the right leadership, only the best talent will be attracted to your business in order to orchestrate some of the most inspiring feats of business imagination that the world has yet to see.