The Leader's Role in Implementing Strategy

Leadership is critical to successful strategy implementation and execution. In my work with CEOs, I've found that leaders often appreciate tips and techniques on how they can best lead a new strategy. Here are ten of the most important leadership factors to lead a strategy implementation and ensure its success.

  1. Take the lead. Be visible. Communicate all the time, both formally (presentations, intranet, etc.) and informally (when you're meeting with employees.) The most effective leaders are continually talking about the strategy, providing insights about what the big picture is, and using the strategy to make decisions. When you implement a strategy you are taking your organization into the future, so give your people a very clear picture of where you are headed, get people to buy-in and change how the organization thinks about itself. Employees want to hear strategy directly from the top. I've seen CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and leading professional firms talk with small groups about strategy; it has a very strong impact. Projects and timelines are critically important, but don't confuse those with leadership.
  2. Prioritize. Strategy is about making choices about what you will do and equally important, what you won't do. If you're trying to be world-class in everything, then it's highly likely that you don't have a good strategy to begin with. Focus on the few most important initiatives and drive them forward a mile instead of trying to move everything forward an inch. Demonstrate this when people come to you for decisions: "Our strategy is "X," so it makes the most sense to do "Y."
  3. Build strong buy-in among your top team. Heads nodding in agreement during a strategy session are not a measure of buy-in. You need every senior leader to be strongly advancing the strategy by publicly (and privately) supporting it, and by demonstrating support through their actions and behaviors: How they communicate and make decisions. This is the number one reason why strategies don’t get implemented successfully. I was retained by a gas and electric utility to help them understand and overcome employee resistance to a major organizational change. Here's what the problem was: Members of the senior leadership team, all of whom supported the change, were directing their people to tackle immediate needs within their functional organizations before working on the change. To employees, that meant that the major change wasn't a priority, so they resisted it.
  4. Allocate resources to achieve the strategy. Similar to #3--Make sure the key strategic initiatives are adequately staffed and given the appropriate resources to get the job done. If you don't, the strategy will go on the back burner or be seen as an add-on to everyday tasks.
  5. Objectively assess the skills needed for the strategy to be successful. You have to very tough on this one. If the skills aren't there you need to take action to correct it, or change the strategy. A consumer goods manufacturer I worked with formulated a strategy that called for a continual stream of new products. That required top-notch product development--beyond the capability of the current organization.
  6. Don't underestimate the importance of implementation skills, particularly leading organization change and transformation. There are effective and ineffective ways to drive change in organizations. You want an organization that embraces change, and is eager to make it happen. But all too often, change is ineffective and the result is short-term and superficial with an alienated workforce. You've got to have the right implementation skills, and they are not normally found within most organizations. This is the number two reason why strategies don’t get implemented successfully.
  7. Make the strategic tactical. Drive strategies down to individual performance objectives and decision-making. Foster both accountability and transparency. You want everyone accountable for their part in achieving strategic objectives, and you want everyone to know how well they are doing. This usually means that jobs will have to change to reflect the strategy. If you have a new strategy, and peoples' jobs don't change, or if strategic tasks are additional work, something is wrong with the implementation.
  8. Assiduously maintain a strategic focus throughout the organization. Keep its attention on achieving strategic objectives and head-off the tangents and diversions that are all too alluring to organizations. Functional groups are constantly coming up with their own projects that may meet their own agendas, but which distract from a strong focus on the strategy. Its up to the leaders to watch for this and head it off, even if it sometimes feels like "Whack-a-Mole" at times.
  9. Be personally involved in moving forward the few most important strategic initiatives. Not running them. And certainly not micro-managing them. But making sure that everyone knows which initiatives are most important and that you are closely watching the progress.
  10. Engage the organization. Both intellectually and emotionally. Slide presentations about strategy rarely connect. A good story will.