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How to be more execution-focused as a leader

Here are some straightforward and effective ways to focus on execution.

6 min read



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A leader’s job is to keep the team on track. You focus on hitting deadlines and executing projects without losing focus or getting lost in the weeds of decisions, communications and logistics. The ability to execute in this way is critical for every leader.

In fact, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman found that senior managers ranked execution first on a list of 16 must-have leadership skills, as they explain in an article for Harvard Business Review.

The good news is, you and your team can improve on execution and become more execution-focused without working extra hours, suggests Zenger and Folkman. Instead, use the following ideas to make small changes within your team and yourself, allowing everyone to do what they need to meet deadlines and stay on track.

Empower your team to make decisions

When you provide the training, resources, information and the necessary level of trust for employees to make decisions in their spheres of influence, you teach them how to be responsible and accountable for executing on their own.

This allows your team to be more creative, industrious and solution-oriented because they don’t need to wait for approval from you to execute when they’re ready. Cisco does this with “actionable accountability,” which empowers employees to act, while holding everyone accountable to specific, measurable criteria.

Kevin Bandy, former senior vice president and chief digital officer of Cisco, explains, “To enable actionable accountability, establish clear measurement criteria based on roles and responsibilities. Then enable people to act and challenge the metrics to align to a new business model allowing them to measure that progress.”

Bandy continues, “By developing a core managerial and organizational competency of actionable accountability, you will unleash and direct the power of your most vital asset — empowered employees.”

When you think of meetings: Think 20% or 22 minutes

There are many good reasons for meetings — to communicate as a team, check-in on projects, brainstorm on new initiatives and more. However, if more than 20% of office hours are spent in meetings, employees have less time to perform their actual jobs, explains George Deeb, managing partner at Red Rocket Ventures. When employees are tied up in meetings, they have less time to take action and execute, and it’s your job to make sure that’s not the case.

To avoid this execution roadblock, Deeb suggests scheduling a “one-on-one meeting with each of my direct reports, one meeting with the person managing me and one meeting with my peers to collaborate on needs between departments” — keeping those meetings within the 20% margin. To keep track of the time spent, put all meetings on your calendar. At the end of the month, you can tally the time you and your team spent in meetings and adjust accordingly.

If you’re still struggling with this challenge, try the 22-Minute Meeting, an idea that came from Nicole Steinbok at Seattle Ignite 9. The idea is simple: schedule meetings for just 22 minutes — not 30, not 60. The value being that when you’re on a time-based deadline, you’re more likely to be productive, leading to less time wasted, and more work done.

To make this work, Steinbok recommends the following process:

  • Schedule the meeting
  • Set a “goal-based agenda”
  • Send materials 3 days ahead of the meeting
  • “Start on time”
  • Stand
  • No computers, except for the presenter and note-taker
  • “No phones, no exceptions”
  • “Focus! Note off-topic comments”
  • “Send notes and action items ASAP”

This is a major shift for many, so it may be wise to start with just your team. If you find you’re spending less time in meetings and more time executing on plans, bring it to the rest of the company as a simple and free growth initiative.

Fine-tune your team communication

A critical element of execution is communication. While this seems obvious, most companies are not prioritizing internal communication. In the 2017 State of Workplace Communications report, two-thirds of respondents had not received a budget increase for communication-supporting technology in recent years. What’s more, nearly one-fifth said that the biggest hurdle was getting senior leadership to see internal communications as a priority.

To bring execution to the forefront, you first have to do so with communication, starting with goal-setting and aligning on company priorities — two factors that directly affect your ability to execute successfully. If you can’t get leadership on board with new communication technology or internal communication initiatives to make this possible, there’s still a lot you can do, with little to no budget, to improve communication among your team.

  • Use the free tools available to you: Online chat tools like GChat make it easy to stay connected with employees consistently. To be execution-focused, you need to be able to move fast, and having a tool for immediate communication at your fingertips allows you to do exactly that.
  • Tell stories: The Center for Creative Leadership suggests using stories, when applicable, in your communication with employees. CCL notes: “When you tell a good story, you give life to a vision, goal, or objective. Telling good stories creates trust, captures hearts and minds, and serves as a reminder of the vision.” This is a valuable tool for you to encourage employees to act and ensure the project, plan or goals stay top of mind.
  • Encourage feedback: You can only get better if you know what’s working and what’s not working for your team. Make feedback a two-way conversation, allowing employees to improve, along with yourself. Set one-on-one feedback meetings each month or each quarter to build this into your team culture.
  • Be creative in your presentation: Communicate your strategy and needs in a variety of different ways. Emails, for instance, can get overlooked, and someone may be out of the office on the day of your kick-off meeting. Clearpoint Strategy shares an example of how Canon got creative with this: “Canon USA created ‘Strategy in Action: Canon Americas’ Strategy Playbook.’ This playbook featured a color-coded version of the corporate strategy map and was designed by a graphic artist who had worked for USA Today.” Find ways to incorporate creative ways to communicate.

Be more execution-focused as a leader

The bottom line is this: Employees should regulate themselves to meet the demands of their positions. Teams should communicate regularly and consistently. Meetings should be productive, not wasteful. And you should orient everyone, not toward the abstract finish line, but first toward the concrete steps that are needed to arrive there. Use these ideas to take the first steps toward an execution-focused mindset, both for you and your employees.


Jessica Thiefels is an entrepreneur and founder and CEO of Jessica Thiefels Consulting. She’s been writing for more than 10 years and has been featured in top publications, including Forbes, Entrepreneur and Fast Company. She also writes for Business Insider, Virgin, Glassdoor and more. Follow her on Twitter @JThiefels and connect on LinkedIn.

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