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Executive Ritalin: 3 steps that prevent leadership from killing your project

Here is a simple three-step process for staving off executive impatience that leads to killing off promising projects.

6 min read




Think about a time when the leadership team at your company announced a big initiative and you thought, “You know, this is a decent idea. It’s got a few flaws, but we’re moving in the right direction. I can get behind this.”

And then, poof! Six months into the implementation, the project is abandoned for yet another (and possibly diametrically opposed) Big Idea.

Does this sound like how things operate at your place of employment?

You, my friend, have just experienced Executive ADHD. Also known as Bright Shiny Object Syndrome, this phenomenon is common in companies both large and small, as company leaders attempt to keep pace with an ever-accelerating business cycle. If your company is publicly held, it’s even worse because shareholders evaluate company financial performance in three-month increments.

In rare cases, big problems are quickly solved. More often, large-scale problems require time to fix.  And time is something many executives believe is in short supply. As Bob Richards, a vice president for a global manufacturer headquartered in Switzerland notes, “True change — from a problem-solving standpoint — takes a lot longer than is usually allowed in companies. You need to get folks involved in identifying the problem, how the problem was created, and then get their input on how to solve the problem.”

Richards has devised a simple three-step process for staving off executive impatience that leads to killing off promising projects. He acknowledges an executive’s difficult position, saying, “When you’re in a leadership role, it is one problem after the next and your role is to get problems resolved—and quickly.”

Over the past two decades, Richards has launched his share of successful large-scale projects, many of which have reached across the entire enterprise.

Here’s his roadmap for drawing in executives and helping them remain patient while the new change makes its way through the system. “This process is my form of executive Ritalin,” Richards explains.

Find one measure that encapsulates the problem you’re trying to solve

The most important element in Richards’ process is to get clarity on exactly what problem you are attempting to fix. Then, decide: what one performance measure best identifies whether the problem is being properly addressed?

For example, as executive leader of a global initiative to improve employee safety, Richards’ team launched a management-based safety program. The “big idea” was to drive a 100% injury free work environment.

“We needed a simple, straight-forward ‘key performance indicator,’ or KPI, that represented collectively the problem we were trying to solve” he recalls. So his team settled on “zero injuries at all locations” as the single KPI they would measure to track progress.

Richards cautions against having multiple KPI’s. If you try to measure several KPIs at once, it muddies the waters and makes progress appear slower to executives because some indicators may show improvement, while others show stagnation or even decline.

Give the executive leadership a stake in the project

Although top leaders are strategically involved in change initiatives, they’re rarely personally involved. Richards has found tremendous success with the mantra of “give them something to do.” He suggests that if you are leading the change initiative, you must find a simple task for executives to do that relates to the project. Again, direct their attention to the KPI and ask them to talk directly with employees about how they are experiencing the KPI.

For example, ask the executive to meet with employees on a frequent basis to discuss successes and set-backs related to the KPI they are trying to improve. Here’s an example of the “keep it simple” KPI tip in action. As the CEO of a large global manufacturer toured the company’s 56 plants, he would ask one simple question: “Can you take me to the location of your last safety incident and describe the root cause of why it happened and the preventative steps now in place to assure it never happens again?”

‘This strategy was very effective, because Richards says, “it tells the folks on the floor that someone at the highest level in the organization cares and understands what they deal with day-to-day.”  And the executives appreciate it because instead of being cooped up in a meeting room all day, they get to directly participate in the project for a part of their day.

Make updates visual and visceral

Even when executives do some “management by walking around,” the bulk of communication about the project’s progress comes in the form of updates. These periodic updates present a huge opportunity to give your project more time to take root. 

Richards suggests a 2:1 ratio of reporting — two successes to one challenge. This shifts the focus into positive territory and connotes to the executive that your team is making progress. “This [positive focus] gives you time to actually put the things in place so that they actually stay in place,” says Richards.

Another tip that Richards offers is to make your updates as visual as possible. Stay away from boring slide decks with lots of words on them. Instead, show bar charts or graphs that demonstrate a positive trend towards the problem that is being addressed. This, says Richards, helps connect the executives to the visual (and emotion-based) side of their brains and helps them feel the project in a more visceral way.

If you’re tasked with implementing the next Big Idea for your company, take preventative measures to ensure your project’s success. Follow the prescription of a seasoned veteran who’s learned to help executives exercise the patience necessary to give important projects time to flourish.


Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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