Execution: Laurence Haughton on the Art of Follow-Through

Laurence Haughton speaks softly, but his message comes through loud and clear:
Fact 1: 1/2 of all a company’s strategies and initiatives will fail to make it from the drawing board to the front lines
Fact 2: Because 2/3 of all managers follow through using tactics prone to fail
Fact 3: And only 1 out of 10 companies have the tools to address this critical breakdown
A management consultant, lecturer, and business writer, Haughton’s latest book, It’s Not What You Say… It’s What You Do – How Following Through at Every Level Can Make or Break Your Company was published by Doubleday in 2005.
In 2001 Haughton co-authored It’s Not the Big that Eat the Small… It’s the FAST that Eat the Slow– a Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and New York Times bestseller that was translated for sale in 26 countries around the world.

Here’s the interview I’ve been promising to post on the site.
What made you write this book?
I wanted to know why half of all initiatives fail, and what leaders at every level can do about it. Of course, I had preconceived notions of what I thought the problems were, but was surprised to find that almost all of them were dead wrong…
Can you give us an example of that?
The biggest preconceived notion I had was that there wasn’t enough accountability in the world, and that why things didn’t get done. I used to think that people didn’t take completing their work seriously or their bosses didn’t make the consequences serious enough.
I have a very high degree of what psychologists would call conscientiousness, which can make me a real pain to be around. So that’s why I thought I got things done, and others didn’t.
So you’re the worrywart for everyone…
Also a nag. I used to look to blame people. I’ve visited companies that work that way, and I’m now convinced that’s dead wrong.
So the concept that all the world needs is accountability and more dire consequences, or the opposite view- a motivationalist view that all you need is more attaboys! Whichever side you want to be on, they’re both wrong.
The key is that you have to find the line between enough and too much accountability. The line is not that hard to find. I lay out a prescription in the book. But it depends on the type of project you’re working on. For example, is it more important that everyone communicates, coordinates and cooperates or is it more important that you know to last scintilla who it is that specifically dropped the ball that caused an interruption. Pinpoint accountability is totally unproductive in certain industries- the airline industry, for example. Research shows us that managers who take accountability too far, especially in businesses where follow through requires rapid responses to unpredictable changes, chip away at each individual’s willingness to look past personal interests and work with others to make sure what’s expected gets done.
In the book you’re saying that execution is critical. And yet you take Larry Bossidy to task.
It was Linda Lockwood at Charles Schwab who lifted the veil from my eyes about the Larry Bossidy’s memo in his book. She’s the one who said it was the “same old corporate gobbledygook.” Bossidy’s memo did not set clear expectations. And Linda wondered aloud: “How could managers tell when they had achieved Bossidy’s objectives?”
I can tell you that woke me up.
Then I started exploring the difficulty that people have when directions aren’t clear.
My book describes 4 building blocks that were developed after research showed us that 66% of managers use tactics that are prone to fail. And the tactics fall under the 4 building blocks I describe in my book. I use the 4 building blocks to make it plain, to explain step-by-step what to watch out for.
It’s so important that you have measurable objectives but even more important, you’ve got to have clarity. It was Einstein who said that if a scientific theory can’t be explained to a child it’s probably worthless.
Think of the stuff that you read – the obtuse language, the jargon – in the marketing world and HR world for example.
The team leader’s job is to make people understand, not confuse them. Not everyone has to be as smart as the leader as Linda pointed out, but everyone has to understand where we’re going as a team.
So let’s talk about the 4 building blocks…
The four building blocks are:
1. Having a clear direction so everyone knows exactly where they’re headed
2. Matching the right people to each goal
3. Getting the right level of buy-in (you have to outmaneuver the CAVE people)
4. Unlocking the individual initiative in every member of the team
Simple enough. But it’s far more complicated than you’d expect.
The first building block is clear direction that says that if you talk to people, more that half the time people can’t see a connection between what they’re doing and what the corporate objectives are. Why cant; they. It starts with the fact that as leaders, as managers we’re not clear. Sometimes we’re trained to say things in a vague and general way instead of doing what Douglas Smith says- make success measurable. Be specific, have some idea about how you measure the results you want and how the accountability gets divided in the team. To begin, just ask yourself- “is what I told them to do measurable, is it specific enough?”
In the book I describe the executive who is told by a 16 year old kid that “sometimes it seems like you’re writing to impress yourself.”
It’s our job to make sure that what we say makes sense and is understood at every level of the company- by both platinum level players and nickel level players, and everyone in between.
We all need to recognize that we have empathy inside us, and that we can up our ability to empathize. In the book I talk about reading between the lines. Take the world of the high-end restaurant business. A very competitive business, low barriers to entry… so how do you compete? How do you compete with people who are paid $12-15 dollars an hour?
In the book we tell readers about Richard Coraine of the Union Square Hospitality Group in Manhattan. They have created a process of “enlightened hospitality” which I describe as a real-time sixth-sense of their customer’s expectations, followed by an effort to exceed those expectations. Coraine tells us the story of how a reservations person noticed the guest whose valise had a broken grip (he held it under his arm so his client wouldn’t notice). While the guest entertained his client over lunch (at a quiet table selected by the host), the valise is sent around the block and the strap is reattached. When the guest comes to check out, the host hands him the bag by the grip to show him its fixed, without a word being exchanged. That’s “enlightened hospitality.”
The key is to “put yourself in someone’s shoes.” That’s what Coraine has created, a recipe for that includes smarts, heart, and courage. There’s another story he tells us in the book as well, but you’ll have to read it.
You mean the one about “chicken soup and crackers” after midnight?
(Laughs) Yes.
You mention how critical it is to make accurate assessments. How does that work?
Here’s something else that keeps coming up: “We tried that and it didn’t work, so we tried something else.”
How many times do executives try a change program and when it doesn’t work, they simply come up with another change initiative. This is a huge problem.
But some companies have the courage to stay the course. Take the case of SSM Health Care, another company I outline in the book. After 5 years of spending money and seminars and intense work on total quality management, a senior executive gets asked “Are we still doing CQI?” CQI was the continuous-quality-improvement initiative they had introduced five years earlier.
To their credit, they realized they had been “mucking around.” So they dug in. Something was missing. And it came out that the problem was that they were not making accurate assessments. They were trying to solve problems before they did a decent stab at the root-cause.
Ask “why” 5 times. The tendency is to try to fix something as soon as you see something wrong. Problem is people try to fix problems quickly, but they don’t fix the root cause. Why? Because they didn’t ask why enough.
The Five Whys is not new. It comes to us from Taiichi Ohno, the creator of the Toyota Production System. He believed that if managers wanted to start with a clear and accurate assessment of any problem, they had to ask why five times before trying to create a solution.
I also mention the case of Bill Zollars at Yellow Transportation– he wanted the company to start exceeding customer expectations by making sure their clients were very satisfied, not just satisfied, mind you, but very satisfied. He found out that the assessment his VP of Marketing had made of customer satisfaction was way, way off. And he found this out because he delved deeper. He checked the accuracy of their assessments.
Let’s talk about choosing the right people – the second building block…
Sure – I come from a background where you hire for experience. While researching this book, I found out that sometimes it’s more important to hire attitude over experience.
There’s another myth out there that says that anyone can accomplish anything if they just put their mind to it. There’s so much junk science out there that I had to really to clear the weeds, to find out what really works.
For example, research tells us those managers who make sure there’s the right fit between people and their goals before they take action double the likelihood of success.
There are people who are perfectly suited for the New York Yankees style of management. Others aren’t.
Sometimes the HR bureaucracy doesn’t give you the time. I talked to a manager who said they had 45 minutes to interview each candidate, which was simply not enough to get to know someone before hiring them.
HR sometimes is its own worst enemy.
Now at IKEA we have something different. Why? Because Pernille Spiers-Lopez, the president of IKEA North America. spent four years as manager of human resources for IKEA North America before being named president. She doesn’t have to put up with the nonsense. They’ve totally reinvented the HR function and it’s a beautiful thing to see. I did not talk about this in the book, but the IKEA hiring process gives them a competitive advantage.
[Note: Working Mother magazine named IKEA North America one of the 100 best companies for working mothers and singled out Spiers-Lopez for its Family Champion Award. The company provides benefits not widely offered retail workers in the U.S: full medical and dental insurance for those who work as little as 20 hours a week, including coverage for domestic partners and children; paid maternity leave; tuition assistance; a 401(k) matching plan and flexible work schedules. Spiers-Lopez was named president in 2001, when sales staff turnover was 76%. The next year these and other policies helped the company slash turnover to 56%.]
HR people are dying to get a seat at the strategy table. They have to be invited to the table because they bring something to the table. Traditional HR does not.
The key again is to connect personal goals to the goals of the organization. And sometimes that doesn’t just happen. As a leader, you have to make it happen. And if HR is going to be relevant, its got to become better at identifying and discovering talent.
And you’re only going to make that happen if you can outmaneuver the CAVE people.
Who are these CAVE people?
Anand Sharma at TBM Consulting Group gave me that acronym.
CAVE stands for Citizens Against Virtually Everything.
Just as our bodies have an immune system that assaults everything new and unfamiliar, organizations have their own auto-immune response that impulsively and instinctively attacks everything new or different- the CAVE people. They work overtly and covertly to undermine the change initiative your company is depending on. In the book I outline the strategy for outmaneuvering them, to give your change initiative a fighting chance of success.
Can you give us a hint how? How do you outmaneuver the CAVE people?
Anand Sharma was very kind to share these insights with our readers. I go into the details in the book, but essentially:
1. Kick off your change initiative with a “wow” event.
2. Blitzkrieg them (follow through so fast the CAVE people don’t have time to organize resistance)
3. Create disciples from the rank and file
4. Take your success story straight to the top
The bottom line is to execute, you simply have to get past the CAVE people.
Why are some people so motivated? And others so unmotivated? And why do incentive plans not work? That’s something I examine in the book as well.
This is all great, actionable knowledge for executives who want to get things done. We should let people buy the book to get the full story. Thanks for all your time.
Thank you.

A must read for everyone from the CEO on down…

3 Replies to “Execution: Laurence Haughton on the Art of Follow-Through”

  1. Aligning HR with the Business

    Now that HR has decide that they need to be perceived as strategic, they’ve decided to put start measuring the ROI of HR. How? Human-Capital Metrics. The problem with HR is HR. In a majority of companies, bsiness and HR…

  2. Aligning HR with the Business

    Now that HR has decide that they need to be perceived as strategic, they’ve decided to put start measuring the ROI of HR. How? Human-Capital Metrics. The problem with HR is HR. In a majority of companies, business and HR…

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