Imagine going out for a nice dinner only to be served cold food by a surly waiter. Sound unsatisfying? This is the dilemma many organizations face today. Despite brilliant strategies and innovative products, what’s missing is top-notch execution—and it’s time to (re)acknowledge its critical role.
Establish a practical framework for thinking about execution that goes beyond traditional thinking
Identify current business trends that illustrate the growing importance of execution and other social trends that downplays it and is even antagonistic to its fundamentals
Great execution is increasingly central to business success and a vital element of being a great executive.
Great execution goes beyond process efficiency. It has four factors: vision, people, structure, and conversations. Individuals have numerous responsibilities, and the organization needs to lay the groundwork for success.
In this context we can see that “culture” is a byproduct of how well a company executes. Culture is endogenous: it is both driver and outcome of great execution.
Despite its importance, great execution is downplayed and even undermined by social media and what might be called “professional populism” where employees are increasingly critical of institutions and seek flatter structures and more democratized decision-making.
Legendary management guru Peter Drucker is widely credited for saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This memorable aphorism captured the idea that people have a greater impact on a company’s performance than vision alone.1
I think Drucker could have gone even further. Yes, culture eats strategy, but what we really need to talk about is the restaurant. We need to talk about execution.
Execution is everything—from the ambiance to the service to the quality of the food—that creates the dining and working experience in Drucker’s breakfast. We can think of strategy as recipes, where the products and services are the ingredients. The senior staff are the restaurants leaders charged with ensuring the choreography of the servers, bussers, hosts, dishwashers, and prep cooks. The systems are everything from the cooking utensils and appliances to the ordering and food prep processes, the restaurant’s supply chain, and staff training.
What will we take away from our dining experience if the breakfast is delicious, but the service is lousy? Conversely, will we really want to come back to a restaurant with a beautiful room and attentive servers if the croissants are limp and the eggs are cold? When execution fails, the whole experience suffers, regardless of the talent, vision, or intent that went into it.
The restaurant analogy illustrates how hard it is to execute well. In business, execution can be complex, intricate, and technical. It is decidedly unsexy, and even out of fashion because it implies a certain uniformity of thought and priorities. And yet, without crisp execution, great ideas never reach fruition. In a world where every problem has at least a half dozen companies trying to solve it, success belongs not to the first mover or the firm with the most innovative idea, but the company that gets a good enough idea to market.
As the title of this post and indeed the name of this Substack imply, execution matters most. For all the hype and hubris we see from so many leaders—the glimmer and gloss, the fluff and fanfare, the pretense and posturing—the only attribute that’s real and leads to lasting success is one’s ability to deliver. Great execution isn’t just a “nice to have”, but a vital part of being a great executive.
In this inaugural article of the Great Exec/ution Substack, I explore why execution is undervalued. I also share the execution framework I use for with my advisory clients to help them focus on strengths and areas of improvement. As you read this, ask yourself: Is my organization serving a five-star meal in a one-star setting? Let’s dig in.
Why execution is so hard to get right
There is nothing like a restaurant in terms of work experience. They are veritable hives of activity. With every diner, the restaurant has one goal: to provide an experience so satisfying that the customer might like to return. To do this, the staff must deliver an outcome whose logistics are part science, part ballet. The meal needs to be delicious; customers need to be treated well, their orders taken and delivered with efficiency and grace; and the place setting and dining room need to live up to expectations. Success is the culmination of literally dozens of different factors, most of which are seen only by the people who have direct responsibility for them. Those factors are shaped by hundreds of decisions taken every day by people whose experiences and training vary wildly. This is their execution.
It is the same in business. Whatever the vision of our own “restaurants”, the combination of tactics, marketing, sales, operations, product development and so on, is the choreography our companies perform in the hope of satisfying and retaining their customers.
While the details of execution can be intricate, the concepts of execution are easy to understand. There are four key factors:
Vision: The strategic framework that guides an organization’s long-term objectives and provides a sense of direction.
People: The human capital—an organization’s most valuable asset—whose skills, behaviors, and engagement are critical for executing any strategy.
Structure, or Systems: The operational scaffolding within which all tasks are carried out—this includes workflows, organizational functions and structure, and processes.
Communication, or Conversations: The essential two-way flow of information that makes all organizational activities possible and helps build alignment and trust.
With each of these factors, there are things that we, as leaders, need to do. There are also things which the organization ultimately needs to ensure. The section below can help us visualize this.
Four Factors of Execution
Individual & Collective Responsibilities
Execution Factor 1: Vision & Strategy
Ensure personal alignment with vision
Understand & contribute to that vision
Be clear on her/his individual role & goals
Define an organizational strategy & roadmap
Clearly articulate the company’s vision & goals
Example: The leader outlines the future strategy in annual meetings. The organization includes this vision in its internal communications and staff training.
Execution Factor 2: People & Engagement
Ensure personal culture fit
Cultivate personal leadership and management qualities
Engage & motivate colleagues
Ensure top-down and bottom-up cultures are aligned
Hire, train, and retain great leaders and managers
Promote the right behaviors
Monitor team engagement & motivation
Example: A leader promotes and rewards team members who show initiative. HR regularly surveys employees to assess job satisfaction and identify areas for improvement.
Execution Factor 3: Structure & Systems
Manage personal productivity
Ensure the team’s workflows are efficient
Integrate the team effectively with the rest of the organization
Articulate and implement a target operating model which defines functions, roles & responsibilities
Promote efficient processes that deliver desired outcomes
Monitor and evolve to build team resilience & flexibility
Example: The leader initiates a new, more effective and less time-consuming project management system. Employees take the training and begin to utilize the system for greater efficiency without dragging their feet.
Execution Factor 4: Conversations & Communication
Be receptive to feedback about strengths and weaknesses
Communicate effectively (both tone and content)
Actively listen and engage
Enable team-wide feedback processes
Ensure leaders communicate clearly
Promote active inter-departmental communication
Example: The leader holds monthly town halls to discuss achievements and future plans. Employees engage in cross-departmental meetings to ensure everyone is aligned.
This framework clearly illustrates the multidimensional nature of execution, the roles we as leaders need to play, and the promises that our organizations need to deliver. The four categories—Vision, People, Structure, and Conversations—are inextricably linked, each influencing and reinforcing the others. For instance, a clear Vision is necessary to engage and motivate People. Similarly, effective Conversations can often be the catalyst for smoother Structure. While you can work on one factor in isolation, it is important to think through how the actions you take interact with other factors.
By framing execution this way, we dispel the most popular misconception about its nature: that execution is concerned only with process and the proverbial assembly line by which tasks get done. This perception is not only limiting but incorrect—and it’s exactly what Drucker was getting at with his famous adage. Execution is both a mechanical function and an organic one, where interpersonal dynamics and other seemingly intangible factors exist alongside concrete processes and metrics. You therefore can’t simply “set and forget” an execution strategy; it requires constant adjustment and fine-tuning, just like a high-performance engine.
This framework gives us insight into misconceptions about culture as well. Culture is not the values of the company. Culture is not exclusively people related. Perhaps most importantly, culture is not an input. You don’t “set your culture”. Your culture is an expression of every aspect of execution: the vision and the visionaries, the people and their interactions, the structures that guide them, and the conversations that happen within those structures. Culture is a byproduct of how you do, and how well you do, each of these things. And, just like execution, culture isn’t something that you can just establish and then forget about; it needs to be nurtured, managed, and aligned with your business goals. The key thing to understand about culture is that it is endogenous: over time, it is both driver and outcome of great execution. It shapes how the company executes, and conversely, execution can either solidify and enrich the culture, or consistently degrade it.
Execution is ultimately about getting the right people to do the right things at the right time across the entire company. With accelerating technological advancements and rising customer expectations, the cost of poor execution is higher than ever. In a crowded marketplace where everyone has access to similar resources and technologies, execution can easily become the defining factor that sets one organization apart from the rest. Let’s explore why that is.
Execution is existential
We can trace the rising importance of execution to two rather obvious trends in business generally. The first has to do with technology. This isn’t just about gadgets and software or the web; it’s about a fundamental transformation in how work gets done. Technology has penetrated every business function, effectively replacing manual tasks and dramatically altering traditional processes. If German philosopher Martin Heidegger were analyzing today’s business world, he might say that “technicity” has become an existential part of our modern working life. Put differently, technology is not just a tool we use, but an integral part of how we understand and interact with the world, including our work. This change has amplified the importance of execution as we interact with increasingly complex systems and processes.
The second is that the line between B2B and B2C is blurring, at least in terms of expectations. Today’s clients, even in a B2B setting, are increasingly demanding consumer-level experiences—frictionless, intuitive, and delightful. They are used to seamless transactions in their everyday lives, and they expect nothing less in their professional interactions.
This potent mix of rising customer expectations and technical complexity has elevated great execution to table stakes in today’s business landscape. Companies simply can’t afford to neglect their delivery. If they do, they can be certain a competitor will seize the opportunity to do it better.
If great execution is this important, then, why aren’t people and companies more focused on it?
Execution in the era of Instagram
We have already said that execution is intricate, multi-dimensional, and technical. This already explains a good part of why companies struggle with it. But it goes further. I believe interest in execution is declining as a consequence of our societal fixation on dreamers and visionaries.
Collectively, we are enamored with entrepreneurs who promise to change the world. The narrative surrounding them glorifies their audacious ideas and the utopian workplaces they create, where life’s problems are solved and employees are happy, fulfilled and self-actualized thanks to unlimited vacations and free gym memberships.
Social media likes success stories, where people pop champagne corks and celebrate wins. But more often than not, the true story is very different. As most founders will candidly admit, unless you’ve started a business yourself, you’ll never truly grasp how hard it is to make it. The dream is never the problem: it’s the doing. The challenges tied to execution are messy and daunting. Success—which is a matter of if, not when—typically comes after years of setbacks and failures.
So, for the most part, these challenges are ignored or glossed over. When they are shared, the stories are often told as one or the other extremes on the continuum of “hustle porn”. On one end, you see people boasting of morning rituals where, by 7 a.m., they have already meditated, walked the dog, worked out, taken the kids to school, and performed community service. At the other extreme are the burn-out stories of people who chased a dream only to realize it was someone else’s and now want to share their cautionary tale.
Suffice it to say that the models we see of charisma and passion alone paving the way to success are not just misleading; they are dangerously far from the truth.
Another trend shaping attitudes about execution is a growing skepticism and even rejection of authority figures and hierarchical institutions. Spurred by both political movements and broader societal shifts, people are calling for flatter organizations, greater autonomy, and more individual control over work. While these are valid aspirations, they create an inherent tension: How do you reconcile the need for distributed power with the necessities of focused, disciplined execution? Effective execution ultimately requires coordination and oversight that inherently involves some form of hierarchy—if not of people, then of priorities. How do decisions get made under conditions of disagreement? We’re not really going to take a vote, are we?
This form of “professional populism”, if we can call it that, has put new demands on leaders. We must foster an environment where individuals feel empowered but are not aimless, guided but not micromanaged, where we harness individual agency and creativity toward a common goal while deftly balancing personalities and complexity to achieve the company’s priorities.
Piece of cake.
Just as a restaurant requires more than a great chef to succeed, a business needs more than a vision to thrive. It demands a holistic, nuanced approach to execution—an orchestra of well-timed actions, from the kitchen to the dining room, that delivers a delightful experience to every diner.
The framework I’ve set out here provides a blueprint for ensuring that your ‘restaurant’ runs smoothly. It reminds us that the chef needs both an engaged kitchen staff and a front-of-house team that shares the vision, works seamlessly together, and communicates effectively. Whether you’re a Michelin-starred establishment or a mom-and-pop diner, failing in any of these key areas can make the difference between a repeat customer and a one-star review.
It also reminds us that, even if we are doing it well now, execution is an ongoing effort. Just like a restaurant continually updates its menu, trains its staff, and refurbishes its dining area, your business should also be in a state of dynamic improvement. The landscape of business, like that of fine dining, is always changing. Consumer tastes evolve, new technologies emerge, and the market itself undergoes periodic transformations. Keeping your execution sharp means continuously adapting to the variables of Vision, People, Structure, and Conversations so that you—individually and as a leader of the organization—can improve execution and build a five-star business.
- Drucker’s view stood in stark contrast to the more mechanistic conception, borne of the “Scientific Management” movement, of human resources that was the prevailing wisdom of the middle of the 20th century. People were essentially seen as “cogs in the wheel,” interchangeable and easily replaceable.