Strategy Execution: What You’re Not Thinking About

Can your kid’s X-Box teach you strategy execution?

I got to spend some quality time with my kid and her X-Box this weekend while we survived the second straight week of major winter weather events that weren’t. Her favorite game is Forza, a car racing game that is amazingly accurate. Well, other than the part where you paint your Bugatti pink.

One of the things I like about Forza is that as you go flying through the race course it shows you the proper line for making a turn. My daughter is a pro. She negotiates the turns like her last name is Andretti and wins almost every race she’s in. But when I first start playing I often turn too fast or too slow. I try hard to avoid the walls but usually hit them head on. Then I remember the classic advice: “Focus on the road, not the wall.” Suddenly I start looking like I know how to drive a car in real life.

Is there a secret to successful strategy execution?

Like making a 200 mile per hour turn in Forza, strategy execution is hard. In addition to running a consulting business, I also serve on the Board of Directors for EO Oklahoma and volunteer as a middle school debate coach. As a leader, I have a vision for what I think should happen in each of these organizations. Like that arrow on the road, vision is easy. Turning that vision into reality? Hard.

One of my “must reads” each month is Harvard Business Review. They’ve featured numerous articles on strategy execution over the past two years. Check them out here, herehere, and most recently here. These articles debate the correct steps for successful strategy execution. How do you define a successful strategy? Who should be in charge of implementation and execution? Are implementation and execution two different concepts?

These debates have raged for more than 25 years. And why shouldn’t they? Especially when 75% of organizations fail to implement their strategy. Peter Bregman, who wrote HBR’s most recent article on the topic, argues that Execution is a People Problem, Not a Strategy Problem. I couldn’t agree more. Bregman’s article provides a simple blueprint for leaders to follow the next time they’re looking to implement a new strategy. I recommend everyone take the time to read it. But, if I may, I’d like to focus on this one point.

Execution is a People Problem.

Peter Drucker famously said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And this is the biggest challenge facing strategy execution. If your team isn’t on board, your strategy ain’t going anywhere. This is why I argue (and a lot of research backs me up) that Approachable Leadership is the best lever you can pull if you want to improve your organization’s ability to deal with change.

Make no mistake. A good strategy is vital to any successful business or organization. Whether you are reorganizing a department or launching a new product or building a top notch safety record, you will not succeed without a good relationship with your team. Successful strategy execution begins and ends with people. If you don’t get it right at the beginning, you’ll never make it to the end.

Think about this for a second.

What’s the main problem your first line leaders encounter when implementing a new strategy? Pushback from those they lead. Sometimes the pushback is obvious, like openly complaining about a change or flat out refusing to do it. But it’s usually much more subtle. Continuing to do what you’re comfortable with or letting other things take priority. Begrudgingly following through all the while looking for evidence that the new change won’t work. Sometimes this passive-aggressive behavior is on purpose. A lot of the time your team won’t even know they are doing it.

Whether you are dealing with an employee, a volunteer, or a teenager, a leader faces the same challenge. When you notice resistance to the vision do you make the “Villain” assumption or the “Hero” assumption? The “Villain” assumption means you believe your teammates are trying to railroad your vision. If you choose the “Hero” assumption you believe instead that your teammates want to be great. If you make the “Hero” assumption then resistance means there is an obstacle in the way or a resource is missing.

The assumption you make is up to you. But whichever assumption you make will change your own behavior. If you are making the “Villain” assumption you are watching the wall through your turn. And boom! You lead your team exactly where you don’t want to go.

If you make the “Hero” assumption you (and your team) are looking at the road. Sure, the wall is there, but if you work together on making sure everyone sees the line clearly the turn will take care of itself. If your teammate sees problems with the strategy you should listen. They are closest to the action. Maybe there is a better way. Perhaps you are steering toward the wall without even knowing it.

If I can distil any bit of knowledge from my 20+ years working to improve relationships inside troubled companies, it’s this:

Everyone Has Something to Teach You

Strategy execution is complicated. You can’t possibly know everything there is to know about all the variables. And like a fast-moving car, the conditions around you are constantly changing. But if you start with the assumption that everyone has something to teach you, your success rate will be far better than most. When you invite input from all levels of your organization, your strategy will be stronger. And when people feel that their concerns have been heard and acknowledged, their willingness to execute the new strategy is also stronger. You’re all looking at the road, not the wall.

Have you ever struggled with strategy execution? When have you found the answer to a challenge comes from others? How do you let your team know that you want to learn from them? What do you think you can learn from your teammates?


Proud Day at Approachable Leadership

I received a great gift last week.

My former intern Cameron Brown had a bound copy of his dissertation on leader approachability delivered to my office. I am proudly displaying it on my shelf next to a couple of other authors I admire (my Dad and another guy named Wilson 🙂

His dissertation is titled: Leader Approachability: What Is It? What Is It Good For? And Who Needs It? Cameron did an amazing job of answering all three questions. You’ll hear more about it this year, but it reinforces a lot of what we’ve been teaching about the importance of leader approachability over the last few years.

To me, the best part about being a leader is watching your folks learn and grow. Here are two great actions you can take today to reconnect with this key leadership behavior:

  1. Reach out to someone you helped learn and grow and just see how they are doing. Let them know you are thinking about them and that you are proud of what they’ve accomplished.
  2. Reach out to someone who helped you learn and grow. Let them know how much they meant to you and the progress you’ve made in your life.

I know it’s early in January, but do these two things and this will be your best day of the new year so far.

New Year, Same Resolutions: 3 Questions to Ask Yourself

The New Year showed up again.

If your office is anything like mine, that means a lot of talk about resolutions and a “better me.” Personally, I love this time of year. It encourages people to reexamine their lives, their actions, their work ethic, their discipline and their dreams.

I use this time to revisit my life plan and my goals. I reflect on what I accomplished and recommit to working harder on the things I didn’t. For me, and for many others, these “resolutions” (if you want to call them that) tend to cover the same areas year after year. Mine are things like:

  • Make better decisions for my health. Like eating Paleo, doing my morning reading on my exercise bike (instead of sitting at the kitchen table), and drinking more water.
  • Find a way to stay involved with my daughter and her friends. For the past couple years, it’s been by coaching her debate team.
  • Make sure I prioritize dates with my amazing wife. Anyone who owns a business or travels a lot can feel me on this one. Although, this is a good resolution for most people and their spouses regardless of their situation.
  • ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS work on practicing what I preach – that is, Approachable Leadership. Get to know my team better. Show gratitude. Be warm, open, and available.

And then, of course, there’s this one other thing. 

For me, it’s the glue that keeps my other resolutions on track: to hike. Let me explain.

That same reexamining and recommitment that everyone does around the New Year happens to me whenever I hike. I have a sign on my wall that is a constant reminder. It reads, “Solvitur Ambulando,” which is Latin for, “It is solved by walking.”

The problem is, I don’t make it happen near as often as I should. It seems that’s the way with these kinds of resolutions, right?

We recognize that this one thing is the thing we need to make happen. Because, for lack of a better phrase, it’s the keystone.  Then before you know it, everything else seems so much more important. And that one thing falls by the wayside.

What is your one thing?

Last year I resolved to finish my quest to complete the Ozark Highlands Trail (or OHT). If you’re into hiking or absolutely stunning scenery and you haven’t been to northwest Arkansas, GO. You won’t regret it.

I get so motivated and focused after a day on the trail. Not that there aren’t distractions in the woods. I’ve encountered everything from bears and rattlesnakes to the most beautiful sunsets and vistas I’ve seen anywhere. But these are much different distractions from my usual day-to-day phone calls, emails, and texts. The OHT pushes your physical and mental toughness at the same time it’s stretching your soul.

Whenever I can make it happen – which isn’t often enough – I like to hike with good friends like Greg Kittinger and Mike McBride. My wife and daughter also join me and last year’s hike they even joined me for a leg on the OHT. Unfortunately, I only made it out to the OHT one weekend last year. This year I resolve to do much better.

For those of you that have done any work with our firm, you probably recognize Greg. He heads up our Business Development and is a key part of the developing and deploying our Approachable Leadership content. Greg is a lifelong learner and on the Board of our local Association for Talent Development chapter.

When I think about resolutions or hiking the OHT, I can’t help but think about 3 questions Greg texted me from a recent ATD conference. The 3 questions are:

  1. Where do you want to go?
  2. What are you currently carrying that is not needed or harmful?
  3. What do you need for the journey?

These are powerful questions. When you are heading into the woods these questions can mean the difference between a great day and a horrible one. Do you have enough water? How about something to eat? Maps? The right clothes? And taking too much on your journey can be just as bad as not enough. The pack gets heavier the longer you have to carry it.

What do you need for your own journey? As you think about your goals for this year, ask yourself these three questions. Whether you are setting a personal, professional or leadership goal, you could do a heck of a lot worse than starting with these questions.

Now how can you apply these three questions to your leadership?

One of the important lessons we teach in our workshop is that your team members usually don’t want you to fix their problems. But most leaders can’t help themselves. And the second you start thinking about how to fix their problem you are no longer focusing on the only thing that matters: making a connection.

Your folks want to be understood. They need to know you have faith in them to fix their own problems. They may need an obstacle removed or a tool to help them do that. Often, the only tool a person needs is a fresh perspective. These questions are a great way to provide just that.

I encourage you to use these questions the next time a coworker comes to you with a problem. Or the next time you’re heading into the woods.

What resolutions did you set for yourself? How about for your leadership? Remember that all that matters is that we’re consistently trying to improve. Be kind to yourself, especially when you veer off the trail. Just get back on as soon as you can. Happy New Year!

PS This picture is of me at mile marker 99 of the OHT. Yes, my trail-wear is a little unorthodox. In cooler weather, I always wear a Sail Rigger oxford shirt (pretty much the only shirt I wear). In this case over one of my favorite t-shirts, which sports a picture of The Bard and a quote that I’m pretty sure isn’t accurate.

Approachability Playbook Released on Amazon: Bonus Offers

Most of you know I love music.

I was listening to a favorite Spotify playlist when I started this post. In the nick of time a classic song inspired me. Many dreams come true…some have silver linings (Recognize the lyric? Scroll to the bottom to see if you’re right!)

In addition to music I am passionate about leadership. I’m excited to announce we just released The Approachability Playbook today on Amazon. You can get a Paperback or a Kindle version. This is the First Edition of The Playbook. That’s a dream come true. Now for the silver lining…


You can get The Playbook on Amazon. We have some great bonuses for anyone who buys a copy, writes a review, or tells their friends to grab a copy. Check out the bonuses here. If you want the details on the bonus offers read on. Now get back to work 😉


Since many of you already have a copy (or more) of the Preview Edition of The Playbook (thanks!), you may be wondering: Why “launch” a First Edition? What’s the difference between the Preview Edition and the First Edition?

playbook-first-edition-3d-box-shotIS THIS EDITION DIFFERENT? The First Edition is an edited version of The Playbook based on feedback we got from readers of the Preview Edition. But note: this release is substantially the same as the Preview Edition (thankfully most of the feedback was great). DO NOT buy a copy of the First Edition expecting it to be a lot different from the Preview Edition. There are some differences but you’ll have to look carefully to spot them.

WHY THE LAUNCH? This is the first time The Playbook is available on Amazon. We have a good chance to make this an Amazon bestseller which gives us a chance to spread the word about Approachability to a much wider audience. That’s why we need YOUR help.

If you already have a Preview Edition of The Approachability Playbook you got to the party early. It would really help us spread the word if you could give us a review on Amazon or tell your friends about our launch on Facebook, LinkedIN, Twitter or any other social media you use. A friendly email works great too.

While many of you would do this just to help us spread the word, we want to give you a little something for your effort. Hence, the “silver lining” bonuses.

We’ve got two special gifts for you. You can qualify for one or both by taking the actions below:

learn-lead-huddle-3q-deck-slide5BONUS 1 ($500 value)Learn and Lead Huddle Training Session. This is BRAND NEW training. Be one of the first to see this exciting new way to train your leaders about Approachable Leadership. Teach your team to use the 3 Questions of Approachable Leaders. This complete training module includes a Facilitator Guide (including our Quickstart Guide and Facilitator Webinar where we walk you through the module step-by-step), PowerPoint Deck, Video, Handouts, and Exercises for the team. You also get up to 10 Action + Leadership Journals. These Journals help your team track their progress after completing the Huddle. Additional Journals are $9.99 each.

HOW TO QUALIFY FOR BONUS 1: Show us that you encouraged your network to check out The Playbook on Amazon. Make sure you use #ALPlaybook in your message on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter or tag us on your message. If you send out an email just copy us on the email. Here is an example message you can copy and paste:

I just got The Approachability Playbook. Get yours! #ALPlaybook

action-leadership-journal-3dBONUS 2 ($14.99 value): Action + Leadership Journal. These are also BRAND NEW. This 168-page Journal is designed specifically to help you improve your follow-up and follow-through skills while building your Approachable Leadership. The Journal will track follow-up actions for a full quarter. you can learn more about the Journal here.

HOW TO QUALIFY FOR BONUS 2: Either purchase a copy of The Playbook on Amazon or write a review if you already have a copy. Send us your receipt or order number from Amazon, or send us a screenshot of your review. Then order the Journal from the bonus page and we will ship as soon as we’ve confirmed your purchase or review.

You can see all the details (and take advantage of one OR both bonus offers) by visiting our Bonus Offer page.

Thank you so much for being a part of our Approachable Leadership community and for spreading the word about The Approachability Playbook to your network. We really appreciate it!

Stay tuned for more exciting news in the next few weeks and enjoy your bonuses. Stay Approachable!

P.S. The lyric is from Led Zeppelin’s Over the Hills and Far Away. “Many times I’ve wondered how much there is to know.” The playlist is called XRTish inspired by my favorite Chicago radio station. Rock on.

Why You Should Use the “F-Word” with Your Team

You should use the F-word with your team a LOT more than you do.

Do you use the F-word with your team? I sure do. The F-word gets people’s attention. When you drop an F-bomb your teammates will sit up and listen to what you have to say. It’s a signal that lets them know you mean business.

A lot of people are surprised that I recommend using the F-word. They don’t think it’s approachable. But I think dealing with frustration is one of the most important things a leader can do for her team.

(Wait, did you think I was talking about another word that starts with F? That’s totally unapproachable! Get your mind out of the gutter!)

Your team should start using the F-word too.

Getting your team to talk about what’s frustrating them is a critical leader behavior. Before you can do anything to help someone dealing with frustration they must open up about it. And believe it or not, most people don’t want to talk about their frustrations.

People often feel like talking about their frustrations, especially with their boss, will just come off as complaining. They believe if they are seen as a complainer that it will hurt them at work. Plus they see a lot of their coworkers dealing with frustration too, and they don’t want to seem weak or whiny.

It is up to you to get people to start using the F-word with you. Get them to open up and talk about their day-to-day frustrations and the everyday friction in their job. Not as a gripe session. But as a way to start thinking about solution-focused ways to make their work day smoother.

Dealing with frustration? Try the PITA Principle

Do you know the PITA principle? It stands for the Pain in the… you know what… Principle. (I’m doing my best to avoid actual swearing in this article 🙂 )

Your job as a leader is to seek out the PITA your team faces. Then – like a frustration-seeking missile – you destroy that friction from their daily work. You know, things like:

  • That coworker who thinks his mom works here (or that lunchroom trash just magically throws itself away);
  • The equipment that constantly breaks down from lack of (10-minute) preventive maintenance; or
  • The TPS report that is an “urgent priority” (Can you get that to me? That’d be great) that nobody ever looks at and derails you from critical tasks.

If you get good at applying the PITA Principle your team will do anything for you.

Work can be frustrating.

From equipment that doesn’t work right, to policies (and people) that don’t make sense, to miscommunication, to missed deadlines, the list goes on. Every single company faces these frustrations every single day.

But as leaders we cannot just accept that work is frustrating. As leaders, we must RAIL against this frustration. We must never accept frustration as the norm in our environment. Frustration breeds resentment. It breeds disinterest, disengagement, turnover, and health issues. It destroys collaboration, quality, organizational citizenship and so much more.

Maybe you’ve started your own list of frustration as you’ve been reading this. A list of the things your employees complain about (when they feel comfortable talking to you about it). Is there anything on that list that the right kind of leader couldn’t make better?

How using the F-word can help your team.

Here are the steps any leader can take to begin dealing with frustration on their team:

  1. Accept that your job is to reduce friction. Trust me, I know how easy it is to get caught up in the numbers and the client relationships and the deadlines and overlook the frustrations of my team. Sometimes it seems like those hard factors are the most important aspects of my job. But what I’ve come to realize is that when I take care of my team, everything else takes care of itself. And when I take my eye off the ball is when the wheels start to come off.
  2. Ask your team about any frustration they’re dealing with. You aren’t going to fix something you don’t even know is an issue. Therefore you begin by making frustration and friction an acceptable topic. Make clear you don’t consider this whining or complaining. Your job is to clear away anything getting in the way of your team and you can’t do that without talking about it. But remember, if you haven’t been the kind of leader who regularly checks up on your team, they may be hesitant to share with you. Start by building a relationship. Show concern. This builds trust.
  3. Action, not words. There is nothing more frustrating (or belittling) than feeling like you made a breakthrough with your boss, only to realize through their lack of action or effort, that they just going through the motions. If you’re going to start the discussion you better plan on following up and following through. Otherwise you are just one more giant PITA on the list of frustrations. You’ll be doing more harm than good.

And last but not least…

Don’t be afraid to drop the “F bomb” on your team.

For example:

“You seem frustrated. Is there anything I can do to help?”

This question is a game-changer. Not only does it show that you’re paying attention to them, it affirms their feelings. While your employee is dealing with frustration they will question if it’s even okay for them to be frustrated. Your affirmation that “yes, we’ve put you in a bind.” Or, “no, you shouldn’t have to deal with that,” might be all they need in that moment.

Go ahead, use the F-word. Your team will be glad you did.

How often do you get frustrated at work? And how much better would your job be if you could eliminate some of those frustrations? Have you ever had a leader acknowledge your feelings of frustration? How did that make you feel? Let us know in the comments.

Developing Leaders Through Training

Developing leaders is a crucial to any thriving business.

But two things prevent a lot of companies from developing leaders. Time and money. Sound anything like your company?

Developing leaders is easy to put on the back burner, especially if time and money are in short supply (and when aren’t they in short supply?) It takes a strong commitment.

I’d like to highlight one of our clients who really gets the importance of investing in leaders: Ellwood Texas Forge Navasota (ETFN). They are a forge located in Navasota, Texas. They are part of a 100+ year old privately held business employing over 2,000 employees. They supply high-quality engineered, heavy metal components to customers all over the world.

What’s ETFN’s secret to success? Quality leadership.

For the past several years ETFN has been working hard on developing leaders. They meet monthly to work on their leadership, and they read leadership books together. The first time I visited Navasota over half of the team showed up for my training with my book Left of Boom! I learned that pairs of leaders were asked to do presentations on each chapter in my book (and I was reassured that this was not done as punishment!)

Developing leaders is important to ETFN.

Over the last two years I’ve been honored to help developing leaders at ETFN. Our focus is on leader approachability. Last year we did our Approachable Leadership WorkshopAfter the Workshop leaders continued to develop their Approachable Leadership skills through the year by working with an accountability partner.

Last month we did a deeper dive on four of the key behaviors of approachability. Here is the “team picture” from the event:

The Four items we focused on this year were:

  • The Approachability Window. We used a new exercise to illustrate The Approachability Window. It helps leaders understand how to reliably build connections by opening up and asking for feedback from teammates. This behavior is difficult for leaders and is hard to simulate. Our exercise is a great way to quickly put people into a safe – but real – conversation where they give and receive feedback about “blind spots.” Each leader walked out of the room with a tool they can use to have the exact same discussion with their own teams. Several leaders mentioned this as one of their key takeaways from the day.
  • Recognizing Gaps. We often tell folks that your teammates aren’t going to some up and say they aren’t comfortable approaching you (especially the ones we need to approach us the most). So you have to get really good at recognizing the “tells” that someone is experiencing a gap. We worked our way through the Recognizing Gaps Tool and the team learned how to recognize – and shrink – power distance gaps.
  • Positive Feedback. Next we went over how to give positive feedback. We shared our 5-part Positive Feedback Model and surprised quite a few leaders when explaining how the popular “feedback sandwich” is a terrible way to give feedback, even though many consider it positive feedback (it’s not). Instead we taught our model that teaches how to give feedback in a way that motivates, builds relationships, and encourages “above and beyond” work (a key to thriving teams).
  • Coaching Someone with a Performance Concern. Finally, we talked about coaching when someone is struggling (again, no feedback sandwich). Instead you make the “Hero Assumption” and use a goal-setting model that people find motivational instead of feeling like they are about to get fired. Unfortunately, a lot of coaching conversations feel like that. This was another key takeaway mentioned by the leaders who attended.

We LOVE developing leaders.

It is so rewarding to work with leader teams like the one at ETFN who really value building leadership skills. More important they practice building these skills – you can have the best playbook in the world, but if you don’t do the reps in practice you will never execute the plays. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Navasota to see how much more progress they make!

Does your company invest in developing leaders? What has your experience been? Let us know in the comments!