Executive Teams: Turning Strategy Into Execution

Translating plans into actions can be difficult, and that reality has led to widely recognized research into how companies are affected by this strategy-to-execution gap. But executive teams, too, often have trouble closing that gap—and researchers at RHR International wanted to find out more about how this plays out in the upper levels of the organization.

To do so, the researchers used RHR’s database on executive groups to identify teams that have done well at managing the strategy-to-execution gap. They then compared those high-performers’ behavior to that of lower-performing teams.

One of the key findings: Higher-performing teams are more deliberate about thinking strategically. They spend 54% more time than lower-performing teams setting direction and creating a vision to guide the organization. Lower-performing teams, on the other hand, spend 83% more of their time fighting fires and tackling tactical—rather than strategic—problems, things that often can be addressed further down in the organization.

“While we expected to see these teams spending more time on these tactical issues, it was really very surprising to see how much time they were spending,” says Nathan Wiita, a principal and research and innovation lead at RHR International. With less upfront direction-setting, presumably, these teams have a harder time prioritizing their efforts to keep the focus on strategy and vision.

“The most successful senior teams create a permeable membrane between the organization’s mission and its day-to-day activities.”

Higher-performing teams also pay more attention to making strategy “real” in the organization. They spend about 20% more time translating the high-level vision into clear actionable goals, and about 25% more time focusing the enterprise through actions such as establishing financial and operational metrics, allocating resources to support strategy, and so on. As the researchers note in their report: “The most successful senior teams create a permeable membrane between the organization’s mission and its day-to-day activities.”

In a related vein, higher-performing teams devote a significant amount of time to internal communications reaching down into the organization. Executives typically recognize the importance of communication. But, says Wiita, “they are typically moving really fast, and sometimes they assume people know things or they just don’t loop people in as much as they should. In our experience, teams often aren’t communicating as proactively and frequently as they need to.” He offers a rule of thumb: “I’ve often told clients, ‘If you feel like you’re over-communicating, you’re probably doing it just right.’”

The researchers found that high-performing teams spend 28% more time engaging the rest of the organization—through forums, surveys and dialogue—to explore company culture and its effect on the execution of strategy. They also spend 25% more time working with high-level stakeholders to identify potential roadblocks to execution and manage their expectations.

Staying in touch with the organization is an increasingly important activity for executive teams. “Information is more available to people than it ever has been, and that creates an expectation in the workforce to be informed and have transparency into information,” says Wiita. In an era of “the democratization of information,” he says, teams should be communicating frequently with the organization about strategy.

For their part, CEOs need to assess where their teams are focusing their efforts. As the researchers write, “We believe that being intentional about the best and highest use of the team’s time is the key lever in getting results.” Is the team preoccupied with reactive firefighting, rather than talking about the future of the business? Are individuals spending too much time being hands-on with lower-level problem solving? How much time is spent in dialogue with employees?

At the same time, CEOs can view themselves through the same lens. Looking at their past monthly calendars, they should ask themselves if they attended a significant number of meetings on topics that could have been delegated to someone else—that is, on tactical, rather than strategic, issues. Says Wiita, “A lot of it comes down to just being really thoughtful about how the CEO, and the team, are spending their time.”

Peter Haapaniemi
Peter is a longtime business writer and editor whose work has appeared in a variety of publications and outlets. A former editor at a B2B custom-publishing company, he has written on topics including technology, leadership, energy, finance, management, intellectual property and legal issues in business, among others.