Have you ever looked at the multitude of business books available for your reading pleasure? Consider a recent iteration of the New York Times paperback best seller list. Second on the list is Getting Things Done, a book about increasing performance. Fourth on the list is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a book of similar focus. There are many others, all written for the purpose of helping people and businesses get better at doing “stuff.”

Now, many of these are not newly published! Some have been around for years, yet they still appear at the top of best seller lists sometimes more than a decade after publication. This suggests a continuing problem with execution, and perhaps a fundamental inability to succeed both for people and the organizations for which they work.

So to the root of the problem. What does it really mean to “execute.”

Execution is simply the act of performing; of doing something successfully. Execution is also defined as “using knowledge as distinguished from merely possessing it.” In looking at these two ideas of execution combined, execution should really be thought of as taking the skills, expertise, and knowledge you possess as a credit union and putting it all to work successfully for the benefit of your key stakeholders. Pretty simple. Why, then, is it so hard to consistently execute? I think there are two reasons, both of which form the basis of this post’s content. Let’s take a look.

A Lack Of Relevant Goals

One of the foundations of execution is actually amazingly simple. Execution requires goals and objectives. Matter of fact. If you don’t have goals, you have nothing to execute. While this may sound a bit like management Zen philosophy, an equivalent of I think therefore I am, the goals you have as an organization really do serve to drive what people do all day.

One of the real reasons organizations find they have a problem with execution is because they have no meaningful goals or objectives. Flip through any of the execution-related business books and you will see a variation on the theme that, in order to execute, you must first define what it is you are executing for. Covey, and the Franklin-Covey planning process inspired by his writings, is especially frank about defining goals before you act. Yet, here so may businesses sit without real measurable goals (or inspired vision) to define their employees reason for being. No direction ergo no execution.

So, the first and primary reason for an inability to execute lies with non-existent or ineffective, un-inspiring goals. If you find that your organization plods along, failing at basic execution, you may want to assess whether you have well-defined goals and objectives that effectively map to the day-to-day activities and efforts carried out by your staff. If you find that you fall short here, know that execution will forever be a problem until you redefine and effectively communicate organizational strategy, direction, and goals.

A Lack of Accountability

To the second reason for failure to execute. So you have well-defined goals and objectives yet tasks carrying high priorities still fall by the wayside incomplete and forgotten. Why? Lack of accountability. Well, actually more than a lack of accountability. A lack of consequences. What I mean is that your institution doesn’t take action when deadlines are missed, projects are dropped, goals are not met.

People move when there is a known consequence, so in order to maintain a commitment to execution you MUST make known to all employees (especially your management team) that should the job not get done that there will be blood. Well, not really blood, but shake-ups, terminations, reassignments, demotions – whatever. If people know the consequences of inaction, they will find the motivation in that knowledge to make absolutely certain they get the job done.

What’s that, you say? That doesn’t work for everyone? True. But the great thing is that you can terminate the employment relationship for those people for whom goals, accountability and consequences fail to serve as motivators.

Of course I understand there are HR and labor law issues at play when you talk about employee accountability. However, in most cases where you have documented failure to act (which means that you must have defined job descriptions with a direct link to institutional goals and objectives), you will win any lawsuit or complaint filed against you. As many HR specialists will tell you, institutions lose when there is willful law breaking (such as discrimination), or insufficient documentation supporting termination. Keeping all employees aware of institutional goals and associated individual job responsibilities, and certainly the times when they fail to live up to these responsibilities, will help ensure your efforts at accountability and consequence are not undermined.

A simple story of a former client to illustrate the embedded risk in failing to hold people accountable. I haven’t worked with this client since 2001. They had their fair share of problems back then. Like many credit unions, their sponsor had changed focus, there was a bit of consolidation, etc. But, they had options – and a good opportunity to serve a niche in the community that they had chosen to serve. The problem was that they never wanted to commit to a specific strategy. You could throw just about anything out and they (meaning the management team and to some extent the board) would find a reason why it wouldn’t work. The city wouldn’t allow it. The market wouldn’t support it. Excuse after excuse.

At first, I thought maybe they knew something I didn’t. Maybe there really were insurmountable roadblocks. After some time spent thinking about their organizational issue and culture, however, I realized what was going on. Their (really the CEO’s) resistance had absolutely nothing to do with what you could or couldn’t do in the community. To be perfectly frank, they didn’t know what the city would allow – after all they were a single-sponsor credit union without any real interaction with city leaders and general policy. Their resistance had everything to do with a fear of accountability – so if they had no real measurable goals and objectives there was nothing concrete to which they could be held accountable.

I’ve kept track of their performance since our parting, and their results have been abysmal – beginning well before this recession. Even during periods of time where most credit unions saw marginal growth in membership and strong demand for loans, they dropped like a rock. Right now, they are half the size they were – while other credit unions and entities serving in the same general geographic area have shown outstanding performance.

Execute to Win

The difference between the credit union I just referenced and peer credit unions that continue to thrive even amidst these challenging times is execution – execution driven by focus and and desire for positive results and a commitment to accountabilities.

When I started this post I said the answer to problems with execution is simple. In concept, it certainly is. In reality, it is anything but. Drafting a solid direction, gaining employee buy-in, and holding people accountable for their actions and commitments is a messy business. Nonetheless, instilling a culture of accountability to success is as close to a guaranteed outcome as you can get and so is very much worth the effort.

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