Transforming Leadership: Strategy & Execution

Building a strategy is very different than executing one—great execution of an average strategy is far more valuable than having an average execution of a great strategy.

We spoke with Joe Rafter, Vice President at Capgemini, who shared the key ingredients for a successful business strategy: authentic leadership, tailored action, resilience, and self-awareness. When leaders embrace these traits simultaneously, they can help any business through the toughest transformations. 

Strategy development vs. strategy execution

As a practiced strategy expert, Joe focuses on transformation. Whether it’s digital transformation or strategy execution, he helps clients reshape their entire business models using technology. With experience that ranges from huge companies like Microsoft and IBM to small companies, Joe has found the best ways to help guide and develop, or redevelop, strategy across organizations.

According to Joe, if you are looking to break into the world of strategy, it’s a good idea to start in a large organization.

“If you want to be able to handle any problem you’re going to face in a business environment, being in a very large system is very advantageous,” Joe says. “Big systems teach you a lot of things. They teach complexity and force you to deal with a lot of decision-makers.”

While larger organizations may lack in some areas, the level of structure and practice offers many opportunities for hands-on experiences that will lend to any professional endeavor you may choose to pursue. However, there is one thing professionals must remember, according to Joe:

There is a huge difference between strategy development and strategy execution, regardless of organizational context.

“Flawlessly executing an average strategy is more valuable and impactful than having average execution against a flawless strategy,” Joe says. 

The moment a well-thought-out strategy is confirmed or put to print, the focus should then shift to execution. The development of a strategy should outline goals, action plans, and benchmarks in detail. But as soon as businesses shift from development to execution, the focus should be on course correcting and pivoting along the way. 

Tailoring action in strategy development vs strategy execution 

As a leader, when you understand the difference between strategy development and execution, you can better tailor your actions to serve the needs of your team. 

“Leaders wake up every day and run the business at the status quo. Running a business has a cadence, infrastructure, and management systems,” Joe says. “Your leadership with those kinds of operational considerations is different than a leadership style in transformation.”

In a day-to-day environment, leaders are typically equipped to handle unplanned situations. Minor shifts and inconveniences that interrupt the status quo are relatively easy to handle given the leader’s training and experience. However, when it comes to transformation, the answers aren’t nearly as clear. 

Transformation is always driven by top-level consideration—there’s always a new aspiration or a massive pain point, according to Joe. To get the best possible outcome, leaders need to be front and center across transformation.

“When leaders are very present and out in front of transformational work, they can make faster decisions, because your frontline managers, directors—even sometimes your VPS—aren’t exactly sure what the right answer is because they don’t own the vision,” Joes says. “Closing that gap in the decision-making process is really important. And leaders have to be out front to make that happen efficiently and effectively.”

The critical state of authentic leadership (and what it looks like)

Transformation isn’t easy—with huge shifts, complex strategies, and unclear answers, many individuals aren’t extremely confident or excited to navigate the unknown world of change and evolution. But according to Joe, navigating transformation is something that can be practiced and honed if you follow a few simple steps.

Step 1: Include change adopters in ideation and creation

“Include the people who need to adopt the change in the creation of the vision and the strategy of the change,” says Joe. “It’’s not the CEO or the SVP’s answer. It’s a collective answer or solution. People are much more likely to adopt a new process, system, structure, or culture when they have a say in it.”

Leaders can struggle to incorporate employees and stakeholders in the ideation phase, often due to the fear of pushback. But feedback and resistance are unavoidable, says Joe. Failing to incorporate those needing to champion the change from the beginning is only delaying feedback.

“The sooner you face the resistance, the better,” Joe says. “Get that feedback now, address it, and work through the processes of resistance, disgruntlement, fear, uncertainty, and doubt sooner rather than when the schedule is burned, and you’re running out of time.”

Step 2: Get leaders out in front of the transformation

Successful change is led by strong leaders who incorporate themselves into the transformation and participate in the teams who deliver strategy execution. According to Joe, this can’t be done behind closed office doors—leaders must get in front of their teams.

“Leaders need to get out of the office, get in front of the people, and engage them regardless of where you are in the project,” He says. “Whether it’s going really, really well or it’s going really, really poorly, the leaders need to be out in front collecting feedback and genuinely listening and making adjustments.”

Step 3: Actively participate in culture

Executive leadership is faced with a challenge—culture is always at play. It’s either working for you or against you, according to Joe. The only way to ensure culture is working for you is to take a large stake in participating and directing the culture. 

“When you aren’t showing up authentically, resistance goes underground and unseen,” Joe says. “If you’re not actively putting your hands on the steering wheel, engaging in and managing the culture, then who knows what it’s doing and what the effect will be?”

Step 4: Focus on authenticity

People follow people—when leadership shows up and participates in culture authentically, employees are more likely to connect with that leader and act in support of the decisions being made. Pairing an authentic leader with an employee base that’s included in organizational decision-making and strategizing is a secret combination to unlocking supercharged transformation.

“Let your personality be authentic,” Joe says. “People want to see that. They want to feel that from their leader, whether it’s on a video or whether it’s in person. Lead with authenticity and some vulnerability.”

There are countless techniques and styles leaders can use when connecting with their people. Leading with authenticity and vulnerability is possible in-office and in remote settings, though each comes with its own set of challenges. But, at the end of the day, authentic leadership can make or break an organization.

“People need to hear that you care about them,” Joe says. “They need to hear that more than how you need to hit the schedule, timeline, budget—they don’t care about those things. They care that you care about them. Make sure you talk about it.” 

Necessities for transformation: mental toughness, self-awareness, and resilience 

When leaders spearhead transformation, they are leading the organization into the unknown. Regardless of how great the strategy is, how promising the potential outcomes seem and how strong the teams are, there will be pushback and resistance. Moreover, the plan for the journey through the unknown can often go off the rails, requiring quick adaptation and decision-making. 

When faced with challenges like these, negative self-talk can be detrimental to leadership. 

“When your plan is disrupted and you have to refigure it out, that self-talk is triggered—that ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘the world’s against me.’ That affects how people show up and how much they are ready to be mentally tough to deal with the situation.”

According to Joe, dealing with problems in a way that shows mental toughness is deeply rooted in character. Being self-aware regarding your habits and tendencies and actively working to better yourself to transform with the organization can help to develop connections and support. Difficult moments offer leaders the opportunity to face conflict and show up with compassion, character, determination, assertiveness, and positivity.

“Be the very best person you can be every day,” Joe says. “ What I love about transformation is it’s constantly challenging you. Every day you come into the office there’s a million problems to deal with and nothing ever goes according to plan. It provides a perfect environment to refine and develop ourselves.”

Ready to learn more about transformation and how you, as a leader, can best enable your organization to move forward toward success? Tune into this episode of The Strategy Gap to learn more about operationalizing your strategy to work for your business and your people.

Listen to The Strategy Gap

A podcast about the space between savvy strategy and practical execution, including everything that can go wrong on the way. 


Meet the Author  Jonathan Morgan

Jonathan Morgan is the VP of Revenue Operations and Head of Marketing at AchieveIt. Jonathan has spent time in roles across strategy consulting, sales, customer engagement, marketing, and operations, enabling a full picture view of strategy & strategy execution. His generalist background encourages a full picture view of strategic planning & strategy execution. Jonathan graduated from Georgia Tech and received his MBA from the University of Florida.

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