Leadership – Vision, Strategy & Execution

This article is about lessons learned from several of my experiences as a leader and as a follower of leaders that have had great vision, well developed strategy and execution plans, some of which have been successful while others have failed.

Sometime ago I wrote an article entitled “Two Most Important Leadership Attributes – Honesty & Ethics”. Another important characteristic of a leader is the ability to see opportunities, seize that opportunity through the development of a strategy and execute using measurable objectives and open communications.  This is most evidenced by the successful owners and leaders of small businesses. They are true visionaries that drive a good portion of the economy. I’ll provide an actual example of this later in the article

One of my accomplishments as a leader was seeing an opportunity to develop a new income stream for a failing JV. My vision was to enjoin the JV partner’s in an expansion of a technical JV agreement into a full sales and marketing JV. Together with my colleagues, a strategy with measurable performance objectives was developed together with an implementation plan, which was presented and approved by the JV CEO’s. Later, I was selected to lead this new JV located in England and staffed with local British talent and a few key personnel from Poland. The new sales and marketing JV was successful because the execution was successful.

One of the things that stand out from my many experiences is the waste that occurs in large companies resulting from not realizing that the organization may not be capable of executing the vision. Many great concepts have not been realized because leaders do not recognize that the vision may not be executable and therefore unlikely to succeed. You have no doubt heard the old cliché “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry” (1), meaning even with the best of intentions and planning the vision or opportunity to succeed failed because the organization was either not capable or made capable in time to complete mission.

Too often I have experienced visionary business leaders that see the potential of an opportunity but fail to test the concept through the development of the strategy. Before giving birth, new ideas need to be tested through deep thinking about the strategic objectives and goal setting (KPI’s), which is the next step towards realizing the vision.

A good example of this is when I was VP Key Accounts for a construction equipment manufacturing company in the Americas. This was at a time when one of the visions or missions of HQ was to increase market share by focusing the business on market / industry segments. The vision was to align the products into product lines and match them with the industry segment application and use. This would flesh out gaps in the product offering in each segment and marry-up the products that fit into several segments thus quantifying the high volume potential by product line and by model. This was one of several (too many) strategic objectives that the organization undertook as part of a greater vision to improve the Groups performance.

Many long hours of group meetings took place to develop strategic objectives (KPI’s), which consumed the organization diverting attention away from opportunities that were lost on core business needs. The planning was superb but neither the vision nor the strategy was executable. Why? The vision and the strategy were internally focused. It failed to include and recognize the importance of the channel to market – the Dealers. Only a few understood and supported the strategy. After two plus years of trying to engage Dealers, the strategy lost momentum and was deemphasized. 
The segmentation strategy failed to deliver the expected results and was a waste of shareholder and human capital. Other parts of the vision and strategy proved to be executable and successful improving the Group’s performance.  This is a good example of why leaders need to be better at evaluating the impact on the enterprise of undertaking a vision. What is the probability of the execution being a success or failure? Is the risk worth the reward? Is there a better way to spend valuable human and shareholders capital?

Many times I have experienced and have been the recipient of someone else’s good vision and too often caught-up in implementing that vision unsuccessfully. Why? Many times the vision and strategy is not realized because the vision is not executable. They are not executable for many reasons; unclear direction / communication, lack of resources, too complicated, takes too long, lack of know-how, shareholder pressure, etc. Sometimes external roadblocks and obstacles outside of the company’s control just thwart the journey.

Here is another example of a JV company I worked for as VP of Sales & Marketing who had a vision /opportunity to increase market share by cross branding products and go to market with two distinctly different brands and dealer networks. Great strategy and most of the dealers were very excited after attending a special and extraordinary launch meeting after which they placed millions of dollars of orders.  The vision and strategy were well executed. Later, the entire initiative was stopped do to external pressure from one of the JV partners Board of Directors. Millions of shareholders dollars spent and wasted on a flawed vision by the leadership.

In contrast, there are many good examples of successful visionary undertakings that make this country great. One of my life long friends son, Dave, is one such example. Here is a case where vision and opportunity to succeed could not have been clearer. Dave was a minority partner in a small service company. Dave had a vision of being able to serve the customers more effectively and expand the business beyond its current scope. He took the time to put strategic objectives in place and develop an execution plan.  Dave negotiated to buy out the partner taking a big risk by incurring a large debt.  Two years later, Dave retired the debt and is now visualizing new opportunities to expand the business again. His vision for the business was realized because the execution was a big success!

Lessons Learned…
We all know that hindsight is 20/20. Perfect vision!  It is easy to be critical and site good and bad examples of leadership. We all know that it is not so easy to discern if the vision we have for the business is really viable.

Leaders need to be visionary and be looking for opportunities to enhance the businesses performance. If the business is not growing it’s falling behind and will get outpaced by competition. It is equally important to look beyond the vision and into the strategy and capability to execute the plan. Don’t overlook the importance of testing the enterprises ability to execute.  Make sure the enterprise supports the plan and understands the mission, timeline and expected results. Post and communicate results and don’t hesitate to alter or modify the plan if some of the objectives are not attainable.  And finally, don’t get trapped by an ego that can’t acquiesce and alter the course as needed. 

Ref: (1) Robert Burns – “To a Mouse”