Execution: The discipline of getting things done

Reviewed by: 
Larry Bossidy & Ram Charan
Random House
Alistair Schofield, Managing Director, Extensor Limited

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Execution breaks with the tradition of many business books by focusing on the things people do at work rather than on the way in which they do them.  The authors take issue with the overly hands-off approach of leaders who see execution as the tactical side of the business, something they can delegate, while they focus on the bigger picture.  I couldn’t agree more!   As an organisation’s leader, the whole purpose of the job is to get things done, to achieve the objectives of the organisation and to deliver results.

The authors suggest that execution is “the missing link between aspirations and results”.  As evidence, they point to the significant number of CEOs who fail.  For example, in 2000 alone, 40 of the top 200 CEOs in America’s Fortune 500 list were removed from post – not retired, but fired or made to resign.  When 20% of the most senior business people in a country lose their jobs in just one year, something must be wrong.  The usual explanation is that the CEO’s strategy was wrong, but Bossidy’s and Charan’s view is that most strategies fail because they were not executed well – not because the strategy itself was wrong.

This is not to say that the authors advocate that senior management should immerse themselves in detail or become “micro-managers”, but that they should focus on developing an execution culture.
In their opinion the heart of execution lies in three core processes; the people process, the strategy process and the operations process.  Every organisation uses these processes in one form or another, but Bossidy and Charan believe that most organisations allow them to stand apart, like separate silos.  An execution culture is about the intersection of the three areas.

The people process.  This is about having the right people in the right place, it is about knowing the strengths, weaknesses, capabilities and capacities of the people in an organisation and it is about development as well as about hiring and firing.  All this may sound par for the course, but few organisations assign the level of importance to it advocated by the authors.  In their view the people process is more important than either the strategy or operations processes as it is the people that will make an organisation succeed or fail.  Moreover, they argue that most people processes are backward looking, evaluating people against the requirements of today rather than looking at the requirements of the future.  For example, how often have you seen organisations leave someone in post even though they are generally regarded as not being the right person to take the business to the next level?

The strategy Process.  In many organisations this is an annual meeting at which people present numerous PowerPoint slides and answer a few questions.  The authors argue that these sessions are too short-lived and rarely examine the subjects under discussion with the rigor and robustness that they deserve.  Another problem is that strategies are often settled upon that are intellectually appealing but that the organisation is incapable of implementing.  For example, when AT&T acquired several cable companies the strategy made sense but the management did not have the ability to run them.  When Richard Thoman became CEO at Xerox he set about transforming the business by simultaneously launching two sweeping initiatives.  The company had a history of poor execution and failed to achieve any of its objectives, the stock price plummeted and Thoman was fired.

The operations process.  Once the strategy has been agreed, it is all too common for organisations to then set targets, agree budgets and allocate resources, give the unit manager a slap on the back and then move on to the next topic with absolutely no discussion as to how, or even whether, you can get the desired results.

The book provides numerous examples of where execution has both succeeded and failed and calls on Larry Bossidy’s 43 years experience in General Electric extensively.  While these examples help to illustrate the more theoretical aspects of the book, they are invariably written from the perspective of a chief executive, which makes them difficult to translate into practical things that people at lower levels in organisations can use.

I also felt that the book was padded out with too many stories and examples and that its simple truths were therefore obscured by too much rhetoric.  It is for these reasons that the book was only awarded three stars.

I do however believe that Execution makes an important contribution to the leadership literature as it offers a sensible perspective on the hands-on/hands-off balance and provides a good counter-balance to the books that simply advocate: think up a strategy, empower your people and let go!  I would recommend this book to all senior business leaders and to anyone who has ever been accused on micro-managing.

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