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John Baldoni
Leadership author

John Baldoni

John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach, and regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review online. His most recent book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up.

Why CEOs fail: the Toyota edition

Organizations large and small lose their competitive advantage for many reasons. These include neglecting small fires until they become conflagrations, ignoring customer wants and needs, or believing in your own infallibility. But there is one aspect of organizational failure looms above these -- the failure of senior leaders to execute.

More than a decade ago, Ram Charan and Geoff Colvin wrote a cover story for Fortune magazine titled "Why CEOs fail." Art for the article featured a mock photo of an ocean liner upended and pointed downward in New York Harbor. The reason CEOs failed, Charan and Colvin concluded, was "bad execution. As simple as that: not getting things done, being indecisive, not delivering on commitments."

CEOs set the tone for their companies. When senior executives take their eye off the ball, the organization can go awry. Good organizations can juggle many priorities of course but if the senior team does not follow through on these priorities, that is, doing what they say they will do, things fall apart.

The irony of poor execution is that it is preventable. Executives' attentions get pulled away from execution for any number of reasons: improper delegation, distraction, hubris or even boredom. Let's face it, execution can be dull. Vision forming and strategy development are exciting propositions; actually doing the heavy lifting to get the work done is less exciting.

The good news is that poor execution can be prevented. Here are some ways to ensure that your organization is executing to its potential.

Make execution a priority. How many times have you heard a senior executive, when faced with a setback, say that he or she is returning to fundamentals? It makes good sense but the intention soon fades as soon as the heat is off. The challenge is to keep the heat on, to continue to execute with urgency. You create urgency by driving home the importance of continuing to perform at a high level. You create metrics and hold yourself and your team to them. This is not fun but it is a way to ensure that quality and service levels remain high.

Go to the work.
The core principle of lean thinking is the Japanese term gemba. In short it means go to where the work is. (Ironically Toyota has long been considered a master of this practice.) Good executives are those that do not rely solely upon monthly reports or what their direct reports tell them. These managers spend time with people on the front lines who make the product or deliver the service. They ask good questions and they listen. Such executives engage with their employees to find ways new and better ways to do things so that employee and customer benefit.

Follow through. When managers are pressed for time, the first task to be eliminated is often checking on the work flow. Good execution relies upon constant monitoring. Follow through means checking with customers to check on product and service performance. Follow through also dictates that you provide your team with the resources you promised them.

There is a caveat to these actions: You need the right people in place to carry them out. As Charan and Colvin write, organizations fall short because of the "failure to put the right people in the right jobs --and the related failure to fix people problems in time." When the wrong people are in place, mistakes proliferate and often will not be noticed, let alone rectified, until catastrophe strikes.

Execution is not child's play; it is hard work, often requiring long hours, exacting detail and constant attentiveness. If you are looking for a prime example of execution in action consider the work of a vascular surgeon. Repairing vascular damage can be time consuming with surgeries lasting for hours; it requires a delicate touch with the scalpel as well as stamina to stand over the patient without losing concentration. Mistakes can be life threatening. Good vascular surgeons are good executors: focused, attentive, and in control.

And that in short is what is required of leaders who execute well: the ability to focus on the job at hand, be attentive to the situation and the people in it, and demonstrate self-control as well as an understanding of the challenges facing you.

By John Baldoni

 |  February 11, 2010; 10:42 AM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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