Strategy is Sexy, Execution Sucks

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In this episode of the Sales Awakening podcast, Steven Rosen and Colleen Stanley dive right into the execution challenges. While strategy formulation is fun and creative, execution requires discipline and focus. It’s the discipline of doing the most important things really well.

“Execution can become very ad hoc rather than proactive and disciplined.” – Steven Rosen

One common reason for lack of execution is the lack of clarity on what’s most important. We need to identify the critical success factors and narrow them down to three manageable items. 

“Change management is sales management, and that’s going to make the difference.” – Colleen Stanley

Change management also plays a significant role in execution. The goal is to normalize uncertainty and embrace the difficulty of change. Leading change requires emotional intelligence and self-awareness.

Follow Colleen Stanley on LinkedIn

Follow Steven Rosen on LinkedIn

[Transcript]

Introduction

[00:00:00] Steven Rosen: Welcome to the Sales Leadership Awakening podcast. I’m Steven Rosen, and my cohost, Colleen Stanley, is right here with me. Together, we’re going to be tackling the age-old issue of bridging the gap between knowing and doing in the area of sales leadership. For today’s discussion, we’re going to talk about the paradox of strategy being sexy and execution sucking. We examine why many companies do a great job building marketing plans and strategies, yet so many fail to execute their strategies and certainly don’t do it with excellence.

[00:00:42] Steven Rosen: And I’m going to hand it over to Colleen and see what her thoughts are on this age-old paradox.

[00:00:48] Colleen Stanley: Steven, we could put this in the bucket of the uncomfortable truth, right? It’s exciting when I put together plans, whether they are business plans or marketing plans. It’s stimulating. It’s creative. You’ve got all of that. And then, when it comes time to do the actual work, some of that excitement goes away. And I know you’ve worked with a lot of teams on this very concept. So I’m going to throw the ball back to you and ask you for three common themes you’ve seen with lack of execution and an example.

Factors leading to Lack of Execution

[00:01:20] Steven Rosen: Thank you. I am very passionate about execution. When I was in the industry, I never thought I was the sharpest person at strategy, but I was darn good at executing what we were doing. And the first thing, because execution is more challenging, what is execution?

[00:01:37] Steven Rosen: I found a great definition. Execution is the discipline of doing the most important things really well. So, it’s a question of focus. You described it beautifully. Strategy formulation, the whole idea of strategy, is fun to do. e can think creatively.

[00:01:58] Steven Rosen: We can think creatively. Hence, it’s sexy. On the other hand, I’m sure, Colleen, you’ve heard that sales is about the details. And nobody wants to think about the details because they’re arduous. They’re complex. So, I have worked with organizations, and I’m going to share my formula.

[00:02:15] Steven Rosen: I’ve run through a process just several months ago. We’re into the fourth month. I’ve seen that when you sit down and build an execution plan, your sales team is much more focused on what they need to do because you’re pulling out what is critical for success.

[00:02:35] Colleen Stanley: I was going to have you back up because you said something really important. What’s most important? Because for salespeople who can be very creative, you’ve got that shiny object syndrome that might go on. So I’m curious, and maybe you’re getting there, how do we figure out what’s most important?

Identifying What’s Most Important

[00:02:55] Steven Rosen: Okay. So, I’ve got to give away some of the secret sauce here. My approach is to bring the sales management team together and brainstorm. We write down ideas, put them on the whiteboard, and then pull them together. From that, we have several themes.

[00:03:11] Steven Rosen: From that, we identify and categorize the most important ones. You can come up with ten important things. If you’re coming up with three, that is a manageable number. So, I’ll give you an example of what I did with one company. 

[00:03:27] Steven Rosen: They came up with it, I just facilitated the process. And number one was messaging. They’re a pharmaceutical company. They really wanted to be clear. They had a new product that they were launching, and they really wanted to be clear on messaging. Another component was that the reps did an effective job planning for each call, planning their days and months so they could be more effective.

[00:03:51] Steven Rosen: The third one was selling skills and working on some relief. So, that could fit any organization, but what they did is that they got everyone on board to execute on those factors. So when their managers were out there, they were looking for that and nothing else.

[00:04:08] Colleen Stanley: You’ve just brought up a point here. All of the overachievers that both you and I work with look at a list of 25 or 10. The number three seems to be the magic number. It’s important for sales leaders and salespeople to realize that you’re not shooting too low by just going after three things.

[00:04:30] Colleen Stanley: Maybe it’s three things for that quarter or the entire year. So, it’s a really important point that you bring up. It also brings up that when you’re doing the whiteboard sessions as sales leaders and whoever else is in the room, you have to be open to other opinions and thinking styles.

Overcoming Resistance and Leveraging Different Thinking Styles

[00:04:51] Colleen Stanley: I know I’m more big picture. I’m at the 50,000-foot level, and then we get annoyed with people who actually do the details. Or it might be what I perceive as contrarian, and they’re not being contrarian. They simply have a different way of looking at it. So, I believe that with a brainstorming session, you have to have high self-awareness so you’re not getting emotionally triggered and shutting down other people.

[00:05:09] Colleen Stanley: And I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but that strikes me as really important when you get people together.

[00:05:15] Steven Rosen: It has a lot to do with psychology, and I know you bring a lot of thoughts to that process, psychology, and emotional awareness. So, talk to me about the concept of instant gratification when they’re in those types of sessions.

[00:05:26] Steven Rosen: How does that play into a preference for strategy versus execution? What do you see when you work with teams?

[00:05:36] Colleen Stanley: For example, if you just take what I said, the high drivers want to do it now. It doesn’t mean that they don’t achieve results, but you have to be very aware of when you’re driving just to get some answer in the plan versus the right plan there.

[00:05:51] Colleen Stanley: A joke I often make with my clients is that you have to really make sure you don’t turn into that character from Sesame Street, the Cookie Monster, me want it now, me want it now. And the fact is, when you’re putting together a plan, you have all these different ideas coming in, but then you have to put in the work to poke holes in that.

[00:06:14] Colleen Stanley: That takes high self-regard because I’ve seen companies where they keep throwing bad money after bad money because they’ve already invested so much money that we’ve got to make this idea work. And so you’d also have to bring in the EQ skill of reality testing. And as good as the idea sounds, it’s time has passed.

[00:06:32] Colleen Stanley: That worked two years ago. It worked two months ago. Having the ability to let go of an idea and then put together a new plan is reality testing. 

[00:06:44] Steven Rosen: That’s hard to do. People get vested in their idea or their program. And even if it’s not working, there’s that whole thing about letting go and maybe admitting it didn’t work.

[00:06:57] Steven Rosen: There tends to be a lot of ownership there, and it reminds me of the old adage: if everything works well, it’s a great marketing plan. If the program fails, it’s poor sales execution.

[00:07:11] Steven Rosen: We used to joke about that, but there is a lot of truth to it.

[00:07:15] Colleen Stanley: It was interesting when we’d be putting together some of our plans when I was in corporate. When I look back on it, we did a lot by lines of business. We would put those goals on product or service lines; some were very strategic. Some of them were literally where we saw a gap in the market where the competitor was failing, and we knew it wasn’t going to take long for them to come back in. We would set a goal around that line of business.

[00:07:40] Colleen Stanley: And then I have to tell you, Steven, some were purely tactical because we did have some products that fell in that commodity bucket. However, if our competitor got into our organizations to replace this with that commodity bucket, then they had to be open to building relationships to sell the value.

[00:08:00] Colleen Stanley: So this was not an easy plan to put together because we’d have to choose which business lines we will focus on this year? Is it a strategic initiative, or is it purely tactical? And we generally had both. Then, we linked it to an incentive trip, which was amazing for getting the plan executed.

[00:08:17] Colleen Stanley: It wasn’t something we could get overnight. It took meeting after meeting, a lot of discussion, and respect for the different styles. Let’s go back to the bridge between execution and doing it well. Are there any tips from what you’ve seen?

[00:08:36] Colleen Stanley: Because you play in this world a lot.

Making Execution More Approachable

[00:08:38] Steven Rosen: I love this world. And some people, as I said, are great at strategies. When I was in the industry, the one thing that I learned was that most companies have very well-defined, structured marketing processes. Some take two months, where the brand managers build their plans, present them internally, and then present them to the senior leadership team.

[00:09:00] Steven Rosen: And then the global team comes in, and you present as well. On the marketing side, there’s a very well-defined structure, process, and approvals to reach what you’re trying to accomplish. On the execution side, we never presented a plan to make these strategies tick.

[00:09:20] Steven Rosen: You talked about some products being tactical, some being strategic. Where does that fit in the reps’ time? How do they make those decisions? In the many years that I’ve worked with companies, I have found that they invest months in building their marketing plans, but that’s very little time, and they have very poorly defined execution processes.

[00:09:45] Steven Rosen: So execution becomes very ad hoc rather than proactive and disciplined. Execution is the discipline of getting the most important things done really well. And to me, that’s where the gap is. Take your strategic plan and make it actionable. There’s a gap there.

[00:10:02] Steven Rosen: The gap to me is an execution plan where you map out the details of how you want to execute. And some of that is refined thinking. It’s not 200 things. I’m talking about doing three things extremely well.

[00:10:16] Colleen Stanley: Give an example where you’ve got the three things of a company you work with where they define this is one of our three that are most important.

[00:10:25] Colleen Stanley: You were able to flip them from ad hoc, or as I think of it, shiny object or no execution plan to getting that done.

[00:10:34] Steven Rosen: I was giving an example earlier of a company we rolled out a plan mid-year, and I said, it’s not a good time to do it. Try the beginning of the year, but it really doesn’t matter. What they felt was one of their critical success factors, and we had a lot of discussion around this, was for the reps to be very effective at planning their days, each of their calls, and doing pre-call planning.

[00:10:52] Steven Rosen: So we worked through that, and basically, the sales manager’s role was to make sure that was happening. We got into what does a good call look like? Do we set pre-call objectives? Make that part of what they do.

[00:11:10] Steven Rosen: Does that answer the question?

[00:11:11] Colleen Stanley: No, because it actually helps the managers because if I know this is what I’m going to be measured on, this is what our conversations are around. And we all know we’re human beings. We need to hear it over and over again. So, I’ve seen a lot of one-and-done training and coaching.

[00:11:26] Colleen Stanley: Okay. We’ve got to do better pre-call planning. The rest are all about that, but you said something really important. We don’t give them the resources on what good looks like. And if we’ve never seen what good looks like, or our company defines it as to the best of a salesperson’s ability, they think they’re doing well when they don’t even know they’re actually below average.

[00:11:45] Colleen Stanley: So you said a couple of things there that are really important that focus. What does good look like? Yeah, that’s a great example. Thanks. 

[00:11:56] Steven Rosen: Not that it was a long time ago, but it was several months ago.

[00:11:59] Steven Rosen: And part of what we did is define what was critical, and then we identified what steps they needed to take. And you triggered the fact that they had to do more training on free call planning and more training on messaging. So, part of the execution plan was not just how we go to market but that we need to plan a session on how we’re going to get better.

[00:12:21] Steven Rosen: You can share what good looks like, so that got built into the plan. There are other factors: hey if you’re trying to do x, what can we do to get there? Training may be a component, and different tools or collateral materials may be part of it. So it’s not just how we go in and sell.

[00:12:39] Steven Rosen: It’s preparing our reps to execute with excellence.

[00:12:43] Colleen Stanley: I remember working with a team a while back, and it was that what statement, but not the how. Okay, we need to do better pre-call planning. Let’s use a really easy example. Go to the website and research.

[00:12:58] Colleen Stanley: What are they supposed to be researching? And everyone in the room looked at me because here’s what happens. We go to the website. And we’re just getting to all of these rabbit trails. So I said, name five things that you want them to be smarter about after they’ve gone to the website. Name five things they should be able to pose a question around when they’re conducting the sales call.

[00:13:21] Colleen Stanley: I found that by getting really specific on some things with pre-call planning, we help our sales team get better.

[00:13:29] Steven Rosen: Fantastic example. The question then becomes, we’ve got to motivate our sales team, and execution isn’t easy because we all tend to follow the path of least resistance.

[00:13:43] Steven Rosen: So what advice do you have on motivating a sales team to persist through changing how they go out and execute?

[00:13:50] Colleen Stanley: Your keyword is change, especially with where we’re at with the rapid pace of change. The Reinvention Academy has research that shows that 20 percent of companies are going to have to reinvent every year.

[00:14:07] Colleen Stanley: That’s a lot of change. So, if you look at the word change, we’re human beings. We don’t like change. So part of a plan can be just what we talked about: strategic. We gave them the resources, but psychologically, you’ve got to work your team through something called the J curve. And what the J curve is, if you can think about a J, and coach to it. What makes you believe that? When have you worked through the J Curve before so they know they have worked through it? Change management is a huge part of executing because you leave what you know.

[00:14:41] Colleen Stanley: And even if you know in the back of your head, this is where I need to leave this because the world’s changing, but you can’t quite see the future. And so we don’t like uncertainty there. We don’t like ambiguity. And if you can point that out, it’s something you call normalizing uncertainty. It’s called normalizing the difficulty of change.

[00:15:01] Colleen Stanley: And when we’ve taught this change model, I’ve seen sales reps almost breathe a sigh of relief because they’re like, oh, this is normal. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to take a little longer than we thought. Change management is sales management, and that’s going to make the difference.

[00:15:20] Steven Rosen: You know what? Interestingly enough, I’m working with a group of sales managers. And we added a few components. We added coaching this year. We added better performance management. And I do group learning sessions with them once a month. And I asked them, once we’d gone over the implementation of the things we’ve changed, what other subjects would you like me to cover?

[00:15:42] Steven Rosen: And one of them said leading change. That’s the challenge. By putting new processes in place, getting out there and coaching with the reps, and having the reps define what they want to be coached on, they were experiencing some leadership challenges in managing that change.

[00:15:59] Steven Rosen: Almost everything we do and some of the fixes are not that difficult, but we have to think about that every time we put something new in place. There will naturally be resistance, and we must listen to that and why.

[00:16:12] Colleen Stanley: And sometimes, Steven, this is just where education, which is what you and I love about our business, can make a difference.

[00:16:20] Colleen Stanley: So we taught this model in a sales training workshop and had a young man, Charles. By the IQ standard, this is a sharp young man. He’s got an engineering degree from Stanford. However, he took a business development role, and he’s calling on the likes of Boeing, a big company.

[00:16:37] Colleen Stanley: So we got a call into our office, and he asked for Gail, who had been his coach. And Gail said he must’ve landed his first deal because he was doing a lot of cold calling. And she said, Charles, what’s up? And Charles goes, I’m so excited. Yes, I’m at the bottom of the J curve after weeks. It was a great lesson for us as teachers because that is what he called in about.

[00:17:03] Colleen Stanley: It was about hope. It was about self-awareness. I’m almost to the point where I’m going to master these new skills. I’m going to master this new position, this role, and responsibility. Education around change can make a sales manager’s job a lot easier.

[00:17:20] Steven Rosen: That’s fantastic.

[00:17:22] Colleen Stanley: Yeah, it was a fun story. So, action steps.

[00:17:25] Colleen Stanley: I know you’re all about action steps. So for our sales leaders listening today, what are one or two things they can do to bridge that excitement and execution gap? 

[00:17:37] Steven Rosen: Let’s get excited about execution. Let’s make execution sexier. At least let’s help me get a process. So companies are not doing it.

[00:17:45] Steven Rosen: I don’t know how many articles I’ve read that say 90 percent of companies fail to execute or 87 percent of companies fail to execute. CEOs find the biggest challenge they have is executing. So, my advice is to build an execution framework. I have one that I share, and I’m going to share it as an actionable thing because it’s broken down into three steps.

[00:18:07] Steven Rosen: One is you need to identify your critical success factors. What are the things that you do really well? I call that the what, and you talked about that, and I thought, oh, Colleen, you’re exactly right. It’s the what. What do we need to do to be successful and narrow that down to three executable items?

[00:18:27] Steven Rosen: The second step of the framework is determining how you will get there. The hows. If you think the what’s are difficult, they’re not. It’s the hows that are very difficult. I gave the example of improving planning or pre-call planning. One of the steps was training.

[00:18:42] Steven Rosen: The second step was we’re going to coach. In each of our calls, we’re going to coach on how well we did. We’ll do some pre-call planning outside, go through it as part of the coaching process, and debrief the call. First, determine what you want to do. Identify your three critical success factors.

[00:19:01] Steven Rosen: Two, get sales leaders out in the field supporting that. I call that leading execution. So you don’t just build an execution plan; you lead it. And the third part of your plan is you do the what, the how, and then how are you going to measure that you’re on track? And that’s always a difficult one.

[00:19:20] Steven Rosen: I was working with someone earlier today, and we followed that format. They actually went with four critical success factors, and I liked the fourth. So I said, okay, we can go with four, but the bottom line is the how and how are you going to measure it? I’m a very simplistic thinker.

[00:19:37] Steven Rosen: I try to boil it down into simple things. For example, we’re working through a business planning process, and one of the critical success factors was to drive business in their top 15 accounts. I think it was adding one new product entry.

[00:19:52] Steven Rosen: So expanding their footprint, and I said, okay, let’s use that as the metric. You have 15 accounts. How many were you successful at getting a new product entry? It’s a simple measurement, but if you have 15, you’ve done a great job. And then, the one part that gets forgotten and is so critical in sales management is having periodic reviews to make sure your plan is on track.

The Power of Debriefing and Reframing

[00:20:14] Steven Rosen: I’m repeating myself, but you figured out the what. You figured out how you’re supporting it in the field. So you’re reminding everybody what’s important because it’s easy to forget. And then you’re doing quarterly reviews on how you do against your metrics.

[00:20:33] Steven Rosen: That is a simple yet effective framework. Most companies, I know from experience, do not do any of that. So, if you guys want to execute with excellence, this is a simple framework to help you get much better at it. You must have at least one, if not many, actionable items to share with our audience.

[00:20:56] Colleen Stanley: I want to comment on what you said with your actionable items because this is very tactical. It’s not even about the plan but debriefing a sales call. And so when you’re saying tangible, we’ve developed many checklists for companies because they think they’re executing a really good sales call.

[00:21:13] Colleen Stanley: And this is getting a little prescriptive, but we have a quote created by the company that if this question didn’t get asked, then you missed an answer, which could have led to a better solution or another question. But it’s very tangible. It’s important for everyone listening today to keep revisiting the metrics.

[00:21:33] Colleen Stanley: You keep revisiting it because that’s the missing piece. We might have the quarterly reviews, but in this quarterly review, I’ve seen where we’re reviewing this set of metrics and then reviewing this set of metrics in the next quarter. Oh, my God, right?

[00:21:48] Colleen Stanley: And so day metrics. But when it comes time to execution, the meta-skill is just with emotional intelligence in general, and in life, it is self-awareness. So be aware of when we’re resisting putting in the time to put together a good plan.

[00:22:07] Colleen Stanley: Be aware when you’re in the brainstorming sessions and dismiss someone else’s idea because they’re analytical or have a different thinking style. So self-awareness is really important to understanding why I’m not putting a plan together and then why I’m not executing.

[00:22:26] Colleen Stanley: And after that, the second one is in the psychology world and in the emotional intelligence where we call it reframing. So you’re right. Execution can be arduous. It may not be that easy, may not be that sexy. So, reframe it to say what’s good about that. Because here’s what I found with anything hard in life.

[00:22:44] Colleen Stanley: If you reframe it to embrace and to say this is great, it’s hard. Most people won’t do the hard stuff. So the fact is execution’s hard. Yay. Because that’s going to be our competitive advantage. This team, this sales leader, does the hard stuff. That is my advice.

[00:23:02] Steven Rosen: That’s great advice. I love the reframing, and everybody talks a good show on execution, but it’s a very difficult thing to do just in terms of our wiring that there’s, as I said, lots of details and sales.

Conclusion

[00:23:16] Steven Rosen: And if you don’t think the details out and ad hoc, you’re not going to have a competitive advantage. I love how you put that. I could go on and talk about this, and I’m very passionate about it, and I can see so are you. I would like to wrap up. It’s been great. I’ve loved this discussion.

[00:23:33] Steven Rosen: And if you guys have loved this discussion, then make sure that you subscribe to the Sales Leadership Awakening podcast. We’re open to ideas, and I hope you’ve found the discussion on execution valuable. Make sure that you listen to us and pick up other ones. There are some great other episodes coming, so hit the subscribe button and write a review. We’d love to hear what you think and share this podcast with other sales leaders because we can all benefit from learning and sharing. Remember, your journey to sales leadership excellence is just one listen a week, one podcast away.

[00:24:12] Steven Rosen: So thank you, and we look forward to seeing you on our next episode.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colleen Stanley
Colleen Stanley is president of SalesLeadership, Inc. a business development consulting firm specializing in sales and sales management training. The company provides programs in prospecting, referral strategies, consultative sales training, sales management training, emotional intelligence and hiring/selection. She is the author of two books, Emotional Intelligence For Sales Success, now published in six languages, and author of Growing Great Sales Teams.

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