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Book Summary: “Execution. The Discipline of Getting Things Done.” by Bossidy, Charan

Being a long-time GE employee (albeit from more than 15 years ago), I was interested to dig into this book, as it has been on my reading list for a while. It’s all about execution…and, as the authors discuss at length, I too have seen many terrific visions, plans, and opportunities go unfulfilled due to a lack of effective execution.

The objective of “Execution: the discipline of getting things done” is to dispel some myths or inaccurate thinking regarding execution, and to provide some concepts and tools to improve outcomes. Execution is not something that just does or doesn’t get done. Execution is a specific set of behaviors and techniques that companies need to master in order to have competitive advantage. It is a discipline of its own.

What follows is a summary of some of the key points that I took away from this book.

Many well-known and even presumably “good” companies, with smart CEOs, inspiring visions, and talented employees, regularly fail to produce promised results. When companies fail to deliver on their promises, the most frequent explanation is that the CEO’s strategy was wrong. But the strategy by itself is not often the cause. Strategies most often fail because they aren’t executed well. Things that are supposed to happen don’t happen. Either the organizations aren’t capable of making them happen, or the leaders of the business misjudge the challenges their companies face, or both. The gap between promises and results is the gap between what a company’s leadership wants to achieve and the ability of the organization to achieve it. Execution is the missing link and, as such, should be the major job of a business leader.

The authors contend that leaders place too much emphasis on higher-level strategizing, intellectualizing or philosophizing, and not enough on implementation. That a fundamental problem is too many people thinking of execution as the tactical side of business, something that leaders delegate to others while they focus on the perceived “bigger” issues. Execution has to be a part of a company’s strategy and its goals. No worthwhile strategy can be planned without taking into account the organization’s ability to execute it.

Execution is often thought about as doing things more effectively, more carefully, or with more attention to the details. To understand execution, you have to keep three key points in mind:

  • Execution is a discipline, and integral to strategy.
  • Execution is the major job of the business leader.
  • Execution must be a core element of an organization’s culture.

Most companies don’t face reality very well and, in its most fundamental sense, execution is a systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it.

The core processes are tightly linked together and need to be connected to the everyday realities of the business by creating a discipline of execution around:

  1. People
  2. Strategy
  3. Budgeting/Operations

The leader must be in charge of getting things done by running the three core processes: 1) by picking other leaders, 2) setting the strategic direction, and 3) conducting operations. Businesses that execute prosecute these core processes with rigor, intensity, and depth. But leading for execution is not about micromanaging or being “hands on,” it’s about active involvement and doing the things that leaders should be doing.

Let’s explore some of the key elements of these core processes:

People

    1. Defines who’s going to achieve the strategy. If you don’t get the people process right, you will never fulfill the potential of your business.
    2. Use leadership messaging to guide the culture, clarify the goals and issues, and to change employees’ attitudes.
    3. Behaviors are beliefs turned into action, and behaviors deliver the results.
    4. Focus on how people execute, not merely the outcomes.
    5. Coach others and help them learn how to execute.
    6. Hold people accountable and provide constant feedback on progress.
    7. A big shortcoming is to be backward-looking; focused on evaluating the jobs people are doing today. Instead, focus on whether individuals can handle the jobs of tomorrow.

Strategy

    1. Defines where the business wants to go.
    2. Corporate-level strategy is the vehicle for allocating resources among all of the business units.
    3. In shaping the plan, involve all of the people who are responsible for the strategic plan’s outcome.
    4. Set goals based on the organization’s capabilities for delivering results. An astonishing number of strategies fail because leaders don’t make a realistic assessment of whether the organization can execute the plan.
    5. Set milestones for the progress of the plan (they bring reality to the plan).

Budgeting/Operations

    1. The operating plan provides the path for people to execute the plan.
    2. Set contingency plans to deal with the unexpected.
    3. Budgets often have little to do with the reality of execution because they’re merely numbers and gaming exercises.
    4. Debating the assumptions is one of the most critical parts of any operation plan and review.

If you have leaders with the right behavior, a culture that rewards execution, and a consistent system for getting the right people in the right jobs, the foundation is in place for operating and managing each of the core processes effectively.

For leaders who are in charge of execution, the authors suggest these seven essential behaviors:

  1. Know your people and your business
    • Leaders have to “live” their businesses and be in touch with the day-to-day realities.
    • Search for people with an enormous drive for winning; with energy and enthusiasm for execution. These people get their satisfaction from getting things done.
  2. Insist on realism
    • Realism is the heart of execution but many organizations are full of people who are trying to avoid or shade reality.
    • You cannot have an execution culture without robust dialogue, which starts when people go in with open minds.
    • Harmony can be the enemy of truth. A good motto is to observe “Truth over harmony.”
  3. Set clear goals and priorities
    • Leaders who execute focus on very few clear priorities; ones that everyone can grasp.
    • Getting things done through others is a fundamental leadership skill.
  4. Follow through
    • The failure to follow through is widespread in business and a major cause of poor execution.
    • Follow-through is a cornerstone of execution; ensuring that people are doing the things they committed to do.
  5. Reward the doers
    • Many companies do such as poor job of linking rewards to performance that there’s little correlation at all.
    • Reward not just strong achievements on numbers but also the desirable behaviors that people actually adopt.
  6. Expand people’s capabilities
    • Coaching is the single most important part of expanding others’ capabilities, and the most effective way to coach is to observe a person in action and then provide specific useful feedback.
  7. Know yourself
    • It takes emotional fortitude to be open to whatever information you need, whether it’s what you like to hear or not. The four core qualities that make up emotional fortitude are authenticity, self-awareness, self-mastery, and humility.

As Jack Welch quotes in this book, “A great practitioner (Bossidy) and an insightful theorist (Charan) join forces to write a compelling business story of ‘how to get it done.’

I hope this book summary helps in your endeavors to fulfill your visions, plans, and dreams.