Execution is Overrated

Before all you execution-obsessed startup folks start throwing tomatoes, let me clarify my meaning. At a company-wide level, execution is everything: strategy and goal-setting don’t mean much if your organization can’t translate them into getting things done. Anyone who’s worked in a startup knows this.

It seems logical, then, to cascade this down to the individual level. After all, what is an organization but a collection of individuals working towards a common goal? So it’s not surprising that in almost all the performance appraisal systems I see, there’s a strong bias towards assessing the individual’s ability to get shit done (GSD), together with varying degrees of emphasis on playing nicely with others and embracing company values.

But I would argue that, at the individual level, the ability to GSD is no more than table stakes.

Obviously, it’s important that your people can deliver the work they’re tasked with. If they can’t, you either have a skill gap or unrealistic goals — or they’re simply in the wrong job. But just because you have a bunch of people who can execute well doesn’t mean the organization as a whole will execute well.

More importantly, it doesn’t mean your organization can scale.

What’s missing? Their ability to know what to do next.

Initiation is the differentiator

If you think about the people who have worked for you who truly stood out — the ones where you found yourself frequently saying “I love that guy/gal ” — they probably all had something in common: a critical skill I call Initiation. They always had their eye on the future, and instead of waiting for you to tell them what to do next, they frequently anticipated it. Then they either just went ahead and did it, or recommended it in your 1:1s.

My former executive assistant, Laura, was a master of Initiation. For example, in her very first month, I was getting ready to create a number of SOPs to help us run the business more efficiently. But before I got a chance, she came to me and suggested 5 areas in which we needed SOPs — three I had already thought of, and two I hadn’t!

This process of initiation — identifying what needs to be done next, and either doing it or putting it on the agenda — is a huge source of value creation, and the single biggest driver of how fast your organization can scale — because it removes you (or their manager) as a bottleneck. It’s ultimately a measure of how autonomously your people can operate. So instead of measuring and valuing your people’s ability to GSD, you should place more emphasis on their ability to initiate, and to work autonomously.

For that, we need a way of measuring it. For this I created a simple framework called The Four Levels of Autonomy. Here are the levels:

Level 1: Apprentice. You tell them what to do, and how to do it. And, as they do the work, you oversee the quality of their work.

Level 2: Qualified. You tell them what to do and you continue to quality-control their work, but you no longer have to tell them how to get things done, because they either know or can figure it out.

Level 3: Proven. You tell them what to do, but you don’t need to oversee the quality of their work, as it’s proven to be reliable, and you trust that if they have doubts or questions, they’ll come to you.

Level 4: Self-Directing. As often as not, they tell you what they need to do next, rather than the other way around. In other words, they Initiate.

Clearly, employees become more valuable to the company as they move up these levels. But the biggest jump in value is from level 3 to 4 — and that needs to be reflected in your performance evaluation system.

Promote the initiators

The ability to Initiate is valuable in any organization, but it’s especially crucial in high-growth startups. An organization full of people who can GSD, but who still depend on their bosses to know what needs to be done next, is an organization that will struggle to scale.

As a C-suite executive, your focus has to shift as the company grows, moving away from GSD and daily operations, towards capability building, strategic work, and stakeholder management. When the people below you are still relying on you to direct their work, it limits your ability to make this crucial shift.

It also constrains your ability to grow your teams. When your company is growing fast, you need to make a ton of internal promotions, turning individual contributors into team leads, team leads into managers, and so on all the way up. It can be tough for people to “give up their Legos” (as ex-Google and Facebook exec Molly Graham puts it) to someone else as they move up, and equally challenging to figure out their new role.

As you think about who is most ready to step up, it’s tempting to promote the folks who are 10 out of 10 on GSD — your most reliable lieutenants. But what if they’re only scoring 3 out of 10 on Initiation?

You’re better off picking someone who is maybe only 7 or 8 out of 10 on GSD, but scoring much higher on Initiation. Why? Because if your strong GSD candidate isn’t effective at thinking well ahead, they won’t be much use as a manager. Put differently, someone who Initiates well is already doing part of their boss’s job! The transition will be also smoother for them, which benefits the whole team.

Strong execution is table stakes, but speed and quality of execution are not the most important characteristics of your future managers and execs — Initiation is.

Initiation can be cultivated and coached

For your company to successfully scale, you need lots of people who can Initiate. The good news is that anyone can improve this skill with the right support.

Sometimes, it’s not a lack of competence that holds people back from Initiating. It can be a cultural trait — for example, the Asian value of respecting hierarchy can cause people to not want to “overstep” their role by proposing next steps. In other cases, low self-confidence or just shyness can prevent someone from speaking up about what to do next.

As a senior executive, you can help people to overcome these barriers, and to build a strong culture of Initiation, by doing these four things:

  1. Make it clear that you expect and value Initiation from all your people, especially your team leads and managers.
  2. Give people the opportunity to practice. If you’re always the first to suggest what to do next without leaving space for others to do so, they won’t get the chance to develop this skill — and they’ll get the message that it’s not what you expect of them.
  3. When they do Initiate, either by getting on with something or proposing a new action item, name what they did and express your appreciation — even if you don’t always agree with their proposed next step.
  4. Build Initiation into your performance evaluation process, and place a big emphasis on it when making promotion decisions.

If you want to build a scalable High Performance Organization, execution isn’t enough. It’s the table stakes of high performance. Only excellence at Initiation can make you truly scalable.

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Rob is an expert guide in the world of startup leadership and high-performance organizations. A 3-time CEO, he now advises many startups including 7 unicorns.

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Rob Bier

Rob Bier

Rob is an expert guide in the world of startup leadership and high-performance organizations. A 3-time CEO, he now advises many startups including 7 unicorns.

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