In this HBR article Rosabeth Moss Kanter shares how winning and finishing first requires execution excellence and a competitive culture.

Smart Leaders Focus on Execution First and Strategy Second

Rosabeth Moss Kanter


Top leaders can provide the framework and tools for a team, but the game is won on the playing field.

Inform everyone, then empower champions. Excellent execution requires both breadth and depth. Big strategies need local options. A bank CEO who successfully implemented a new strategy for positioning the company as environmentally responsible in a country with strong environmental values started with broad awareness sessions for all employees, so they would know what was happening, and so the company could benefit from crowdsourced ideas. But then the CEO zeroed in on volunteer champions who stepped forward to realize the vision through innovations in products and customer relationships. He didn’t worry about converting the skeptics, insist that all units make changes at exactly the same rate, or determine which innovations to undertake. He started a snowball rolling. The champions’ wins became success stories that stimulated others to adopt practices or create their own.

Keep relationships tight and rules loose. Visionary leaders see further when they can see through many eyes. This means staying in close communication with their on-the-ground players, the way football coaches talks with quarterbacks on headsets throughout the game. The CEO and COO of a multisite nonprofit were rolling out a new strategy started with tight, rules-laden processes and playbooks. But as unexpected obstacles and shortfalls showed up on quarterly reports, they realized they should loosen procedural controls while working harder to get the on-site implementers working closely together and with HQ as allies in pursuit of a common mission. Once they articulated their shared purpose, took responsibility for how every other site performed, and developed mutual respect, they vaulted over hurdles and created better ways to meet goals. Shared values knit people together. Arrogance at the top and communication silos below undermine execution.



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