A little more than four years ago when I interviewed for my position at Right Source, I distinctly remember Managing Partner Mike Sweeney asking me this question: “If you had to choose between strategy and execution to describe how you think and what you like best, which would it be?”
It’s a good question for an interview, and gives you a lot of information about how a person’s mind might work, how they might operate. I was interviewing for a fairly high-level position, so I’m guessing that the answer Mike wanted there was strategy.
My answer was execution.
Better to be honest to your potential new boss, right? Frankly, at that point I did like being the person who executed on strategy. Many of my previous positions were very tactical editorial and publishing roles, and my job was to take someone’s vision and make it into a reality. I was counted on to take big ideas to fruition for people who could invent them but not actually execute on them efficiently themselves.
The important thing to realize is that projects, plans, marketing strategies — none of them succeed without both types of people working together. The strategic thinkers are critical to understanding what the organization or project needs and shaping the effort. Just as important are the people on the execution team: Those folks who will take over the tactical details and put the creative icing on the cake once the strategist(s) has offered a vision, put everything down on paper, suggested the direction, and given out the deadlines. What makes a strong execution team member? Here are a few thoughts.
- Pays attention to detail: Regardless of role, an execution team member needs to have what we at Right Source like to call “fanatical attention to detail.” Your job is the details. Whether it’s tracking them, analyzing them, writing about them, making sure that the end product relates properly to the strategy, it’s all about the details. The folks who “aren’t really detail oriented” need not apply.
- Driven by deadlines: A solid member of the execution team is driven by deadlines and can juggle them like a street performer. To really crackerjack execution people, a deadline is treated as a challenge. They wouldn’t request an extension — it wouldn’t occur to them. One task relies on the successful completion of another, and they will not be the weak link in the chain. They are team players.
- Understands the strategy: Everyone must have an understanding of the strategy. How do you execute the strategy if you don’t understand it? But I don’t mean only, “This is my to-do list from section 17.” I mean truly understand the strategy, the goals, the established business objective. The good execution team member will really understand why they are doing the work, not just what the work is.
- Thinks creatively: Some people are fooled into thinking that the strategy is the creative part and the execution is just following someone else’s plan. I’m sure this depends on what industry you’re in; I can’t speak for all of them. In content marketing, however, on the execution end of things, you must be creative. Your writers, editors, and graphic designers are all part of the execution team. They might even cross over into your strategy team. These folks are the ones who will take your big idea and be able to give you either a stick figure on a Post-it Note or the Mona Lisa, depending on their creative skills. A solid campaign strategy for reaching new audiences might offer the path to success, but without the clever message from your writer and the design to bring it all to life, your great strategy could easily fall flat. So if you are hiring people for your execution team who are not creative, I would argue that you will not succeed. Other team members — marketing managers, marketing coordinators, specialists, whatever you are calling them in your organization — also have to work creatively to execute on your strategy successfully. Because you need THINKERS for that, right? The execution team is not made up of robots, and the strategic thinkers aren’t the types to hover over them, micromanaging every task. Since execution team members have to understand the overall goal, they will ideally think about solutions to creatively make a strategy into a winner.
Your company needs strategic thinkers and a smart and creative execution team to succeed. One without the other will not move you forward. Some people are actually good at both parts of the equation — the strategy and the execution. A recent HBR article argued that some of the best leaders are good at both, which is likely true. However, that article also pointed out that the percentage of leaders in a study who were identified as being “very effective” at either strategy or execution (so, in the author’s opinion, both) is small. I agree with this, and believe that overall, a person is stronger in one area than the other. But while people probably lean one way or the other, remember they can have both strategic and tactical abilities, so don’t discount that.
If I had to answer the same question today that Mike Sweeney asked me four years ago, my answer would be different. As Mike said in his post, you can train yourself to think more strategically. Maybe I am really wired as part of the execution team, but now I think more like a strategist. (But I might shift back someday, who knows?)