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Thoughts for the C-Suite: Why is my business struggling and maybe failing? A question of execution

Published by CME Manitoba on September 13, 2017

By Kevin Lusk, CME Advanced Manufacturing & Senior Executive Leadership Champion

In many ways September can be viewed as the start of the business year. At minimum, it’s a time for re-grouping the corporate effort of executing the business plan or strategy for a stronger year finish. In some cases it will be about salvaging and trying to minimize the damage because the business plan or strategy wasn’t well executed. Let’s think about that and candidly consider some hard “C-Suite realities” not usually discussed: 

Dictionary definition of execute: “to carry out in full according to plan”  

There is a mentality among many manufacturing company presidents and CEOs that the work defined by this word is beneath the dignity of the C-Suite. It’s “manager’s work.” Many presidents and CEOs wince at the thought of being labeled as “managers”. After all, what do we pay managers for, right? In point of fact, the C-Suite occupant is a manager. The responsibility to execute is the C-Suite’s #1 most important job. The business success or failure revolves around this central issue.

Here is a puzzling question. Maybe you can answer it. Let’s agree that all companies have lots of hardworking, bright people. Why is it then, that in many instances, these bright hardworking lights aren’t effective? Further, on many occasions, it seems that they focus their efforts on almost anything else other than on the big picture and getting those things done as per their obligations in executing the business plan. 

So what’s wrong? After a lifetime or running companies and advising C-Suite occupants, I find that two of the key distinctions between companies that execute well and those that don’t are that in those that don’t there is a lot of talk, probably some off-site conferences on business strategy, plans and leadership, etc., but in reality, not much action and poor accountability practices. Too many C -suite leaders fool themselves into thinking that their companies are well run, when in point of fact they are not. (In their hearts they usually know it.) The proof is always shows up in how well the company executes its strategy or business plan. Poor execution is excused in defeatist statements like; “it takes time for the strategy to kick in,” or “the business environment is really tough right now.” That poison just sucks all the fight energy right out of the company. Since you’re probably a C-Suite executive reading this, tell me when the business environment has never been tough? Tell me when strategies have been easy to execute successfully? In today’s world, without great execution (not just “good enough”) a company can lose before it gets out of the gate.

Execution – good or bad – will be seen on the year end statement. Great execution; however, is measured in successful days, months and quarters running against its forecasts and business plan. If you’re measuring milestones don’t reflect short range measurements for all participants in the team to see and to be held accountable for performance; then you’re probably not building an execution-oriented company. While the world talks about Industry 4.0, and advanced manufacturing, etc., the difference between a company and its competitor is not so much the technology, but more often in its ability to execute. The future and industry 4.0 are to be sure potential factors that ought to be anticipated in your execution; but in the end, if your competitor is executing across the business board better than you are, you lose. In that sense, business is the ultimate sport. You play to win or you lose. It’s that simple. Ties in the business game are only time deferments until you or your competitor execute better and dominate the market. When a company executes well, its people are not victims of operational mistakes. When company executives execute well, its people are also not brought to their knees by changes and shifts in the business environment.

In my opinion, the lack of execution is the single biggest obstacle to success for any manufacturer.  Weak execution or outright execution failure is the root cause of most disappointments manufacturers mistakenly attribute to other causes. C-Suite, here are a few examples of execution questions to ask yourself before you commit to that business plan:

  • How will the company actually get this business plan or strategy job done? 
  • Do I actually have the right people onboard to execute the plan? 
  • What are my replacement options when my people agree with this initiative… and then nothing comes of it? 
  • When this plan starts to fall apart how quickly can I fix it? 
  • Before we launch this plan are my people sufficiently trained and knowledgeable? 
  • How effective is my leadership at the lowest corporate level?  
  • How often do I, with my team, need to be measuring our progress against our milestones to determine whether we’re on the road or in the ditch? 

If you are occupying the C-Suite and not asking these types of questions and resolving the answers before launching that plan; then frankly, it’s your fault if your company under performs or outright fails in its execution performance.

The fundamental C-Suite problem: C-Suite leaders tend to think of execution as the tactical side of the business. By example, it’s a production issue, or an administration issue or a marketing issue. Accordingly, it’s a responsibility the C-Suite occupant has “delegated” while they focus on the “bigger issues.” (“Bigger issues” is another topic entirely). 

More often than not, the C-Suite occupant is generally relying on vague verbal reports and polite generic management meetings for on track feedback. That is, until the negative numbers show up and things get really messy. If the tough questions are not asked by the C-Suite at the earliest possible stage and all the subsequent stages of strategy execution she/he is letting down the team and the business plan.  

Execution is not just about tactics and processes – it’s a discipline, a system and a culture. It starts with you in the C-Suite. It has to be built into a company’s strategy, goals and culture. AND…as the leader, you own it. You therefore must be deeply engaged in it, like it or not. Delegating the overall execution responsibility by sprinkling that responsibility among your executives, then extracting yourself from these processes in my experience, is a key indicator of a C-Suite occupant driving a mediocre or failing business. 

It is ironic that many C-Suite occupants I’ve encountered spend vast amounts of time learning the latest management techniques, read the latest best practice book releases and yet, their failure to understand and practice fundamental execution negates the value of all most all of what they learned and read. There is no shortage of information on strategy, organizational structure, incentive systems, business process design, and leading cultural change and on and on. There are a ton of consulting firms and business consultants that are more than willing to cook you up the latest flavors. The same can be said for practitioners of tools and techniques, to help leaders gain productivity. But without great execution there is no real business foundation.  

When asked “why” the gap between the promises made and the results the company delivered; more often than not the C-Suite finger is pointed to accountability. The common whine is that “my people aren’t doing the things that they are supposed to do in implementing the plan!” The C-Suite occupant usually knows desperately that he/she needs to change something. Problem is that more often than not he/she doesn’t know what to change because they haven’t focused on the command and control aspects of execution from the get-go.  See you next month for Part II.

As C-Suite occupant, sometimes it is useful to discuss your leadership challenges with someone outside the issue who has encountered like experiences. Taking advantage of your CME membership is a good place to start. Through CME you can connect in fully assured confidentiality with a senior executive mentor or join CME’s exclusive to President and CEO leaders Manufacture Executive Council (MEC). MEC is a monthly CME facilitated meeting of non-competing companies for peer group sharing, learning by experience and coaching. When you don’t know what you don’t know either can be extremely helpful.   


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