Planning is very important, but just like the surfer sitting in the lineup at some point you have to actually drop in and ride the waves. For leaders, this idea means we have to carry out the plans we make. Perfect plans don’t accomplish anything–implementing them does!
That surfing maxim came home to me in the deserts of Kuwait of all places. January 2003 was cold and wet in Kuwait. We’d been planning for months and now it was “go” time. While some projects in our construction program were already underway, we were about to embark on a crash program to complete the remainder of the crucially important projects to get our air base ready. In a few weeks, we’d be receiving 5,000 Airmen and Marines, as well as 200 airplanes. I’ll probably never know for certain, but the word was that when our base was fully operational then we’d begin Operation Iraqi Freedom. In other words: the world was literally waiting on us. We needed to execute the plan we’d made, and we’d need to do it right the first time.
In Part 1, we discussed surveying the environment, and in Part 2 we talked about making a plan. Part 3 is all about execution. After you survey the environment and make a plan, you have to put it into action. When in execution, leaders should keep in mind the following :
- Steer the implementation – be a leader and do the job.
- Anticipate barriers and plan ahead.
- Communicate to everyone constantly.
Keep Your Hand on the Stick
Executing any plan requires a leader to be involved in the execution. We hire leaders to make decisions and inspire others–that means during implementation leaders must understand the plan and steer its implementation. They should be visible and involved. It’s very easy for a leader to spend all his time making the plan then be absent during the actual implementation. We absolutely must resist that urge. Of course the amount of involvement depends on the level of responsibility. First line leaders need to be there all the time, in the middle of the action inspiring and leading, solving problems for the team. Other more senior leaders need to be visible, but shouldn’t “hover”; give the first line leaders space to do their jobs. The mid-level leader should be looking further ahead: clearing barriers and ensuring the team has the resources they need while maintaining contact with the team “on the ground.” Executive leaders should be spending most of their time at the enterprise level, without neglecting the need to be visible to the people actually doing the the job. Regardless of level of responsibility, leaders have to lead through the change: measure progress, keep track of resources, monitor morale.
Another key leadership task during implementation is to anticipate barriers and plan ahead. Just like the surfer riding a wave has to watch out for changing surf conditions and other surfers, leaders must be on the lookout for anything that can go wrong. One of my favorite techniques came from Gen Tommy Franks’ memoir American Soldier where he took time each morning to write down three things that could go right or wrong on a given day. Gen Franks kept those lists on an index card on his desk, and refreshed the lists daily. There are other techniques as well, but the point is leaders must be looking up and out–anticipating things that could affect the current operation and making adjustments. It does no good for leaders to be just as surprised as everyone else when something unexpected happens. Rather, by thinking through the plan and anticipating things that can go wrong, leaders can position their teams to either avoid or minimize damage from barriers when they pop up.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
One often overlooked leadership task is communication. Nothing is done in isolation; no matter what we’re doing others are involved. Everything we do–even those thing “individual” tasks–affect others. We need resources, permissions, advocacy, or buy-in. Community groups, unions, shareholders, boards of directors, and even families all have interest and even stake in what we’re doing. Of course there’s also government officials, customers, and suppliers. All these people and more need to know what’s going on. Believe me, if leaders don’t “feed the beast” and communicate, someone else will fill in the blanks! Public officials need a public affairs plans, businesses need to engage with their customers and advertise, and everyone needs to keep their teammates informed. Clearly, there are as many ways to communicate as there are people, but the key point is this: it’s the leader’s responsibility to ensure everyone who needs to know gets the information. Leaders should spend a great deal of their time communicating, and need to do so deliberately.
Across the Finish Line
Just like a surfer watching the wave and adjusting his course as he goes, leaders have to steer their teams all the way to the finish. By leading visibly, anticipating problems, and communicating appropriately leaders can get their teams to mission accomplishment successfully–while being ready for the next wave!
Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and GeneralLeadership.com.