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Thought Leadership

Strategizing For Success: A Matter of Time

A closeup of a hand holding a watch.

Insights from UNC professor Dave Roberts on how leaders can achieve more success in executing their organization’s chosen strategy.

A mentor once shared her secret to successful leadership: “You just have to spend the right amount of time with the right people, in the right place, saying the right thing!”

According to findings from work conducted at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School over the last several years, a very small proportion of companies are consistently achieving comprehensive execution of their chosen strategy. The number of those that do has stagnated at around 10% and the needle has barely moved since an original study conducted in the mid 1990s.

This raises three questions: Why are we generally “Okay” with this terrible yield? (If we were not, surely more would have been done over the last 25 years to correct it?). What is causing it? How do we “fix” it?

For the purpose of brevity, I will focus on the main themes of our discovery:

  • Failed strategy execution has changed in a surprising way over the last decade. In most cases, it is not now, and never was, due to the absence of a defined strategy. The change is that more and more frequently, the cause of strategy failure is ineffective communication rather than lack of belief/trust in the strategy.
  • This change is strange. We are the most communicated generation ever! So one might wonder, how can the communication piece then be the problem?
  • …because we are ineffectively communicating!

This connects to my mentor’s original “holy grail” of effective leadership, but here I will disagree with her emphasis: It is not as much about the whom, or the where or the what, but is all about the time. Time is our most valuable asset – we get it once; we spend it once; it is gone forever.

Some of my work with senior leaders involves asking them to reflect on where they spend their time and when prompted with an objective evaluation tool, they tend to admit that they are suffering from the disease that afflicts most senior leaders (I thank them for their honesty): They are spending too little time on strategy development and strategy interpretation, and too much time on doing activities, many of which should be delegated to others within the organization.

Most of the time spent by L&D leaders tends to be altruistic – how can they develop the talent within their company? How can they help their internal customer be more effective? Their self-evaluation and candor demonstrated that they themselves were suffering from exactly the same problem as their “customer.”

Perhaps it is time that we all took the medicine and make commitments to change our allocation of our most precious asset:

  • To do more of the things that we should be doing – we should schedule protected time
  • To do less of the things that we shouldn’t be doing (caused mostly by internal but deeply rooted perceptions) – we should get the buy-in of those upon whom we depend: boss; team; and, most importantly, self!

And so, as I reflect on these findings, I find myself energized for the remarkable role that I have with UNC Executive Development – to spend time with our clients, help them develop their people and support the achievement of their organization’s goals; to spend time with our talented faculty; to spend time with my dedicated team; and to proactively find time for me to do the right things (none of us are immune to the disease!).

Maybe it’s about time!