Arlene Adams, CEO, Objective Manager

I’ve just started reading the best-selling management book, Measure What Matters by John Doerr. Instantly it reminded me that ideas are easy, but it’s the execution of strategic plans which is often what defines the success of an organization.

I recently joined Objective Manager as CEO and our business is all about helping professional services firms with strategy execution. In recent months, my conversations with customers have been a stark reminder of the importance of execution. Most professional services firms I speak to have good strategies, they know where they want to go but struggle to make it happen.

I’m only on my second chapter of this book but already it’s really challenged me to think about the human aspect of strategic planning. Management methodologies, strategic frameworks, and tech solutions, like Objective Manager, are great but in isolation will only go so far. A survey by Gallup sadly found that only 30% of employees are actually committed and engaged with their organization’s strategic goals. One key reason is a lack of engagement with corporate-level strategy at an emotional level.

Conversely it has been proven that, where there are clear corporate goals that are understood by people, productivity is enhanced by a staggering 90% – just think of the bottom-line impact of this.

My own personal experience – both as a leader and an employee – tells me the human element of strategy execution is where organizations should focus to achieve their goals. Senior leaders are generally smart people and are able to define strategy. To facilitate this process, there is strategic planning software out there, like Objective Manager, which supports a culture of employee engagement. I truly believe the real value is unlocked when you connect the emotion of your people with strategy, and that takes great leadership.

So, what can be done to make this happen? In order to drive staff engagement, you must have a clearly defined objectives attached to productivity metrics – as the book states “objectives are a vaccine for fussy plans”. Assuming this is in place, then the rest is all about leadership. For strategic goals to work they need to be part of the company’s core values, its DNA, and that starts and stops with its leaders.  People do what you inspect, not what you expect. If you ask a person to focus on their strategic goals, then only ever ask them questions about their short-term tasks, the strategic goals will be ignored. That is human behaviour. If leaders don’t “model” their plan it will fail. A plan that lacks intense commitment from its leaders will fail.

Leaders need to engage on strategy, and this means making it their business to have conversations about objectives, inspecting progress, holding people accountable, helping remove blockers, and always bringing people back to how what they do connects back to the firm’s goals. Execution of the strategic planning process will fail if you don’t engage in conversation and inspection.

I see this as a particular issue for professional services firms where enormous inspection, and compensation, is focused on short-term billing at the expense of strategic development initiatives. This is a real risk, as while the firm may drive more billing hours short-term, the cost of not moving the strategic dial is far more material to the mid-term revenue and profit of the firm. It takes real courage and conviction for professional services leaders to move the conversation from billing to strategy but those firms that succeed will grow faster. This is why 70% of firms fail to execute strategy but for the 30% of firms that do prioritize implementation strategy, it becomes a competitive strategy in itself.


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