Gaining Traction on the Top 10 CEO Challenges: #1 – Excellence in Execution

Almost every year when the Top 10 CEO Challenges are collected by a variety of sources, Excellence in Execution is at the top.  Why?


After all, we’ve all been through conventional strategic planning sessions to lay out a course of action.  At a tactical level we’ve all been through time management programs that promise us greater productivity, and goodness knows we have enough gadgets from online, handheld, and manual calendars to project management software that breaks big initiatives down into excruciating detail.  Great books have been written on this topic.  And we have staff who are supposed to fulfill their role in executing the master plan.  And still, we all struggle.

Here are some practical suggestions from the school of hard knocks that can help executives and their teams execute well:


  1. Less is more:  I’ve personally had the bad habit of filling every line in my to-do list with a task.  Now, I aim for one significant outcome per day, directly related to one of no more than 7 overall objectives for the year. Likewise, when I work with clients on strategic planning, they often pull out massive binders with pages and pages of action items for the year.  And I hear complaints from their boards that more time is spent updating the to do lists and walking through status updates at board meetings vs identifying issues and opportunities.  When they see the power of developing a single theme statement for the year, and rolling it out into no more than 7 key objectives, with each person having only 3-5 that they’re responsible for, the sigh of relief is palpable.  And things get done.
  2. Chunk every project into Intense 90 Day Plans:  There’s a reason new CEOs often take a “First 100 Days” approach – it gets everyone to bear down and focus on what really matters.  This same level of intensity can be used throughout the year to drive excellence in execution… just not unendingly – think sprints, not marathons, because human beings need a cyclical approach of high- and low-intensity effort in order to perform at their peak when required.  So look at those 7 key objectives and the resources you need to achieve them.  Map out a 90 Day high-intensity effort for the team to focus on.  Give them some clear milestones.  And when the 90 Days is done, provide a breather before the next big effort.  When teams get into the flow of executing a specific objective to a tight timeline, instead of being distracted by a full-year’s worth of tasks, they start to feel a sense of accomplishment that motivates them to do more.
  3. Accountability Eliminates Weapons of Mass Distraction:  I used to have a boss who had a new idea every week  that he wanted prioritized.  He was an enthusiastic and charismatic leader, but  his leadership team spent more time running in circles catching those bright shiny objects than moving forward in a straight line towards the objectives we’d agreed on.  And as a result the quarterly board meetings focused more on excuses than outcomes.  Sound familiar?  This handy tactic can make a difference – have a peer-mentor accountability partner, and check in weekly with each other.  Make sure your accountability partner knows the 3-5 outcomes you need to achieve this fiscal year, and have them catch you being successful or help you refocus when you drift.  Have your subordinates practice this technique as well, and you’ll find a whole new level of momentum during your regular management check-ins.

Next Steps for Excellence in Execution:


  1. Strip your strategic plan down to no more than 7 Key Objectives.  Resist the temptation at this point to break it down into specific actions – let each member of the team identify and take ownership for 3-5 key outcomes that will help achieve those goals. 
  2. Shift your 52 week focus into a series of intense 90 day plans
  3. Have each person in your organization work with an accountability partner to help them stay focused on their 3-5 outcomes.

Excellence in Execution has been a challenge for years; for many of us, it will continue to be.  However, these 3 straightforward, actionable steps will help you gain traction on your most critical objectives, and move them more quickly and easily towards successful outcomes.

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