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Over the past five years, I have had the opportunity to present leadership and business improvement training sessions to more than 1,100 CEOs of firms between $2 million and $500 million. During these intensive workshops, I force the participants to make a critical self-examination of the current operational strengths and weaknesses of their organizations through a combination of audits, benchmarking and highly focused discussion questions.  One of the key questions I ask in every session is, “what are the three or four biggest challenges you’re facing in your business right now?”  Even with an incredibly diverse sample of businesses from every imaginable industry, it has been fascinating to notice a pattern of four specific issues that the vast majority of business leaders identify as the things that are holding their companies back and keeping them up at night.

1.  Lack of a Vivid and Extremely Well-Communicated Vision

Although these leaders are personally obsessed with the vision and direction of their company, they reluctantly admit that, if you were to go just one or  two levels below them in the organization, you would likely find very few – if any – employees that truly understood the vision, mission and core values of the organization.  A major duty of every leader, whether you lead two people or 20,000, is to relentlessly communicate an exciting and ennobling vision for the future of the organization.  In one-on-one meetings, town halls, e-mails, voicemails, team meetings… the goal is to help people clearly see where the business is headed and what they need to focus on to make sure you all arrive there successfully.

2.  Lack of Open, Honest and Courageous Communication

The inability or unwillingness to put difficult, uncomfortable, and awkward topics on the table for candid and transparent discussion is identified by leaders as a major inhibitor to their ability to build strong teams and get their organizations fully aligned. Especially in times of great turmoil, employees crave as much information as they can get about how things are going in the company and what they need to do to keep it moving forward.  Where there is a lack of a well-communicated vision, mission, and values, you quickly see fear, politics, and rumor-mongering rushing in to fill the void.

3.  Lack of Accountability

As a direct result of the lack of honesty and courageous communication mentioned above, one difficult conversation not occurring is a frank discussion about tolerating mediocre performance.  After taking a good, hard look at their business, many leaders realize that they have mediocre performers in key positions within their organization and that every day they leave them there is another day they are, in effect, saying to the rest of the company, “we were just kidding about pursuing excellence.”

4.  Lack of Disciplined Execution

For the last five years, I have been a guest lecturer on strategic thinking at a special conference at the Wharton School of Business.  Each year, I have about 120 senior executives in my session and I always ask the same question, “What percentage of the time do companies that have a solid plan for how to succeed in the marketplace… effectively execute to plan?”  The answer has remained the same year after year: 10 to 15%.  That number is shockingly low but, unfortunately, my experience indicates it is accurate.  What is even more devastating is to realize the monumental waste of talent, resources, opportunity, and capital that terribly low number represents. It is hard to overstate just how valuable the ability to execute to plan is to the long-term success of an organization.

So, if you had the chance to speak with nearly 1,000 senior leaders and suggest the four most important things to focus on in order to improve their businesses, they would be:

  • Relentlessly over-communicate a clear, compelling and focused vision for the future of the organization to all stakeholders.
  • Foster an environment that demands honest, transparent and courageous communication in order to develop high levels of trust and respect.
  • Be clear about establishing specific and quantifiable standards of performance and then be rigorous, but never ruthless, in absolutely holding every single employee 100% accountable to meeting or exceeding the agreed upon standards.
  • Develop a culture of disciplined execution by establishing the systems, processes and checkpoints to ensure consistent flawless execution of all critical initiatives.

At the end of the day none of the things I have listed here are particularly new or revolutionary. Actually, I am sure that most of us will recognize them as well-established fundamentals for leading a world-class organization.  However there is a huge difference between knowing something and living it every day in your organization.