Execution First

In recent years the one word that may be the most used (or over-used) is execution. “People must execute,” “strategies must be executed upon,” “companies must execute”—these are just a few things one hears around the water cooler. 

In 2002 Jack Welch friend Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan wrote the definitive book on the topic, entitled: Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done (Crown, 2002). That book was endorsed by Jack Welch and from a commercial perspective, was the right book at the right time. As a result, it sold more than a million copies, a threshold that is reached by one business book out of thousands.

Execution also became a key word at Jack Welch’s General Electric. In evaluating executives, Welch and his team came up with something called the 4E’s (I wrote an entire book on the topic entitled Jack Welch and the 4E’s of Leadership. The 4E’s are: energy, energize (sparking others to perform), edge (making the tough decisions), and execution (making the numbers and delivering on commitments). At first there were only 3E’s, but top managers discovered managers who excelled at the 3E’s but did not deliver in revenues and profits. That’s when the fourth “E” was added and the leadership theorem was complete.

Back to Bossidy and Charan’s book, Execution. In the book, they state: “Execution is not just tactics…it has to be built into the company’s strategy, its goals, its culture…When I see companies that don’t execute, the chances are they don’t measure, don’t reward, and don’t promote people who know how to get things done” (Crown, 2002). Since all managers want to be seen as leaders who know how to execute, that book sold like hotcakes—and continues to sell to this day, some six years after it was published (most books sell for a year, two, or three, but few sell in the many thousands past five years). 

However, despite the stunning success of Execution, I think it’s important to point out that Bossidy and Charan were not the first to write about this concept. Decades before, Peter Drucker wrote all about the topic of execution, he just didn’t call it that. But so much of what Drucker described for years was really execution. Drucker came up with so many great concepts, but seldom came up with catchy phrases for them (think of “reengineering”). 

Let’s get back to the execution example. Consider the following Drucker advice: “Management must always, in every decision and action, put economic performance first. It can only justify its existence…by the economic results it produces…And yet the ultimate test of management is business performance. To be able to control his performance a manager needs to know more than what his goals are. He must be able to measure his performance and results against the goal. Objectives are needed in every area where performance and results directly and vitally affect the survival and prosperity of the business.”  (The Practice of Management, Harper & Row, 1954).    

When one compares these words with the text from Execution one sees the parallels between the two. This is just one example of how Drucker got there first—how he intuitively wrote and spoke about a topic that was picked up years later and expanded upon by very capable authors. In many cases the modern-day authors were quite unaware of what Drucker wrote. That’s what makes it all the more compelling. In the book, Inside Drucker’s Brain  (to be published October 16th), I point out half a dozen similar instances of how the provenance of an idea can be traced back to Drucker.

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