When we work with firms to shore up their ability to execute strategy, one of the things that must often take place is a shift in management style. This is a challenge for those executives and leaders who have fixed ideas about how to get others to do their work. They often feel that changing their style will somehow make them look weak if they are currently authoritarian, or mean if they are used to being “everyone’s sweetheart.”

There are two main approaches managers take in leading their troops to perform the necessary tactical actions toward getting a plan accomplished. We explore those approaches here, and take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each depending on where your organization within the Six Disciplines Business Excellence Model.

First, let’s review The Business Excellence Model, taken from our CEO Gary Harpst’s book “Execution Revolution” (You can download the book for free by clicking on the link.)

Six Disciplines – The Business Excellence Model

There are two dimensions to the Business Excellence Model (illustrated above).

The Strategy dimension (vertical) is about making the best choices for your organizations. In other words, it is about what to do versus what not to do, and is characterized by smarter thinking and better planning the higher you get on the chart.

The Execution dimension (horizontal) reflects how well decisions are carried out. It is characterized by the desire to perfrom a chosen set of activities better than the competition the further to the right you get.

As you can see, this leads to four quadrants any business will find itself in at any given time based on their ability to both strategize and execute.

Below, we explain each quadrant in further detail:

I. Growth Wave: Strong strategy, weak execution. Those who have thought of the better mousetrap but haven’t been able to build the infrastructure to regularly produce it in volume or provide excellent customer service fall within this quadrant. There are growing pains here, but at least there is a killer idea or product.

II. Balanced and Predictable: Strong strategy and strong execution. There is both intelligent planning to increase excellence and superior operational performance. The ideal phase, but it does not last forever.

III. Fire-Fighting: Weak execution and weak strategy. The ship is in trouble here, as there is no clear leadership direction and a lot of mistakes being committed. Executives flounder while employees complain and/or non-comply. This is an emergency situation.

IV. Profit Wave: Weak strategy, strong execution. A company in this wave is doing what it does best quite well, but has no clear vision as to where to go next. The company is coasting on its success and making money, but a competitor with a better plan can take over.

Compliance or Dialogue?

The two main styles a manager has in getting people to do work are Compliance Driven and Dialogue Driven.

Compliance drivers have an authoritarian view of the manager/employee relationship. They make the decisions and issue orders. If outcomes do not match expectations, another set of orders is issued, one of which could be: “clear out your desk.” While associated with the angry and demanding boss stereotype, in truth emotion has nothing to do with it. Instead, it’s the tight control a manager exercises over employees and their zones of responsibility which defines this style.

Dialogue drivers want employees to assume more control over their jobs, and will use conversations to stimulate creative thinking and problem-solving rather than dictate what to do. While a compliance driver might say “Do this!” a dialogue driver would ask “How can we accomplish this?” This does not mean a dialogue driver is soft or weak in their approach – the consultation of the employee in solving challenges rather than issuing direct orders is the main differentiator.

So, which is best? You probably expect an answer like “It depends!” Yes, of course it depends, but in general, the Dialogue Driven approach is the one we heavily lean towards and we recommend for most quadrants, most of the time. There’s your straight answer.

Focus on the “what,” not so much the “how”

The best group plans focus on high level outcomes: the “what needs to be done,” rather than the “how it will be done.” For the senior management and executive level, focusing on the achievement rather than the tactical execution allows the group to engage in dialogue on how to get it done. Working together without feeling like they are in a straightjacket of compliance, being told every detail by people who do not have the front line knowledge of what is going on.

Focusing on the what has the following three benefits:

  • Fosters a culture of accountability and strategic thinking at even the lowest levels
  • Aligns daily activities with the company’s strategic initiatives as employees “own” whether the strategy is getting executed or not
  • Creates an empowered, self-directed workforce focused on continuous improvement

That being said, in Quadrant III “Fire-fighting,” some orders might have to be issued with a “comply or else” attitude – even if it is solely to the executive team to “figure out a plan to get us out of this mess ASAP.”

Likewise, Quadrant I “Growth” might require a period of compliance-driven management . This is because most effort here has been expended in developing strategy, rather than building the infrastructure to get there, so no one knows what to do and needs direct guidance.

For those who feel they could never abandon their authoritarian style, a compromise exists: a hybrid approach called “Comply-or-Explain.” In this style, a general set of guidelines or directions is established which is mostly expected to be adhered to – unless employees have a good explanation for why they cannot do so.

Non-compliance is not a cause to be “shot from guns” but rather a chance to enter into a dialogue for solving execution issues. You get to direct the staff, but they also have control of whether they accept the direction or develop a better method. You can read how this approach is being used in corporate governance in the UK here.

In the end an organization is only as strong as its planning and execution. Doing this well requires a lot of communication in order to get people to get the job done. The management style you choose directly affects morale and results, so choose wisely.