Brokerage Ops the October 2011 issue

Blown Opportunities

Why the Ideas of the Brilliant and Talented Fail

Once again, all the great minds of the insurance world are gathering at the Broadmoor in October for The Council’s Insurance Leadership Forum. I have been to eight prior forums and taken part in many meetings that produced great ideas by the bushel. Enthusiasm is sky high, and everyone is sure that the next time we get together business will be better, goals will be fulfilled and we will all share a sense of accomplishment.

Whenever I reflect back on some of the past meetings and those great ideas, however, it’s not hard to recall how few have actually been executed. After all, what is an idea without a plan to see it through?

In my decades of insurance consulting, I’ve learned that the world is filled with people with great ideas, but too often a good idea does not turn into a successful result. I have chosen my words carefully here because I want to discuss what I see as a real disconnect in the world of business: the correlation between ideas, strategy and execution.

The successful execution of strategy can result in big rewards—increased revenue, new sales, higher profits and increased shareholder value. Plenty of business books focus on how to execute your strategy, but you rarely read about why smart people often cannot successfully execute. Failure is not the result of the strategy, the people, the resources or any other external or internal forces. It is a systematic failure to consistently adhere to your action plans. It is a result of losing focus shortly into the execution phase and trying to change strategy because you do not immediately get the results you are looking for. It is why, when I wrote about transformation management several months ago, I said creating short-term “wins” is critical for a successful transformation.

A very short book, Sticking To It: The Art of Adherence, by Lee Colan (Cornerstone Leadership Institute, 2003), provides great tactics to ensure that you adhere to your strategies. Colan starts with an insightful analogy between personal goals and business strategies: How many people make New Year’s resolutions only to give up on them by Valentine’s Day? The same is true in business. Leaders develop great strategies that gain a lot of initial positive energy to implement them. But in the end, most leaders do not stick to their strategies long enough to achieve the desired results.

Having worked with insurance brokerages and agencies for more than 20 years, I can concur. This seems to be a common trait among many firms. Too many fine ideas fall victim to action plans that don’t receive enough attention. Perhaps it’s a function of the many demands we put on managers or the eternal quest for short-term profits that drive people at our public companies. But I sometimes wonder whether insurance people suffer from a much higher percentage of attention-deficit disorder than the rest of the world.

The good news is that the insurance industry is no different from any other industry. Colan points out that about 40 CEOs from the Fortune 200 are replaced annually, and the most common reason is that they didn’t fully execute their strategies. This is not just a CEO problem but an issue at all levels of leadership in an organization. People in general live for the moment. They lack patience and want to get it done now, not later.

This character flaw, which exists in so many of us, needs to be corrected. The fix is not to create new strategies that work faster, but to stick with your current strategy. Colan calls this “adherence.”

UNDERSTANDING ADHERENCE

Researchers say high-performing individuals and teams have three common components when adhering to strategies: focus, competence and passion. Colan expresses the concept as a multiplication equation: Focus x Competence x Passion = Adherence.

Each component is critical. If you rate each on a scale of 0 to 10 and just one component is missing (e.g., focus equals 0), then the multiplication of the three components equals zero. You yield no adherence.

Leaders who can keep an organization focused on strategies will help individuals and teams set priorities and connect action to the goals, resulting in a greater sense of purpose.

While it’s not realistic to think any of these elements really would be zero, it would not be uncommon for one to be rated extremely low, which would make the success of adherence extremely low. The key for adherence is to continually increase each component because, if you view this as a mathematical equation, each component would then increase the adherence factor exponentially.

A firm builds momentum as it adheres to its strategies the same way you build momentum when you achieve small goals (e.g., short-term wins) that lead to bigger goals. The effort required to create adherence actually decreases over time as actions become habits, and the momentum increases, resulting in a self-reinforcing cycle of achievement. In essence, sustaining adherence is no different than building a culture. It is a model of consistency in practice. “We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle said. “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

ADHERENCE AND STRATEGY

Colan compares the concept of high-performing individuals and teams with adherence and believes that research proves that actual strategies are much less important than their ability to stick with them. In essence, he says that a mediocre strategy with strong adherence will produce better results than a brilliant strategy with minimal adherence. Once again, he expresses it as an equation: Strategy + (Focus x Competence x Passion) = Achievement Level.

To be successful in achieving results and gaining the ultimate competitive advantage is equated with being the very best at implementing a strategy. Your greatest challenge is not creating the strategy but, rather, adhering to it. Here’s your take-away: Spend more time on adherence and less time creating strategy.

FOCUS

Focus is often the hardest component to abide by. Internal and external factors create many distractions that can cause individuals and companies to lose focus. However, leaders who can keep an organization focused on strategies will help individuals and teams set priorities and connect action to the goals, resulting in a greater sense of purpose.

Focused organizations know what is most important to success and do not let other priorities get in the way. Distractions that may seem small are avoided as they add up over time and create misalignment.

Colan suggests identifying the one thing your firm needs to stay focused on. Once you identify your vision, then your vision becomes your one thing. Every business decision you make must support the vision. If not, say no to that decision and move on. Saying no is never easy, but the conviction to make tough decisions is a key attribute among firms that adhere to their strategies.

COMPETENCE

Competence is the bedrock of adherence. It represents anything that improves your firm’s ability to perform, including processes, systems and structures. In the end, competence is the engine that drives sustained execution of your strategies. Let’s also put to bed the theory that you need all A+ employees to be competent to succeed in execution.

We all know that having all A+ players is great and something to strive for, but the reality is that your employee roster will fall into the familiar bell-shaped curve when it comes to performance and competence. Therefore, the key is to elevate the average. This process takes times and is clearly something that every firm must set as a goal. This is a universal precept, and much has been written about this subject. In the adherence equation, however, you can still be extremely successful if you believe in the following: Average Performers + Consistent Execution = Excellent Results.

Please understand: I do not believe in average. As a country, we operate in a C- society. As such, the majority of people and companies are average or even below average. It is why I think it is actually easy to succeed in business. As you work to elevate your employees, you can still have success in achieving goals by leading your employees, wherever they fall on that bell curve, toward more consistent execution.

PASSION

A common characteristic of high-performing firms and individuals is a deep sense of passion for their “one thing.” In the end, passion is the foundation that helps firms stick to their plans over the long haul. It is why insurance brokerages that are truly great have a sales culture, keep a passion for growth, and continue to grow in today’s world despite several years of strong headwinds generated by a weak economy and a soft market.

Having passion for a particular goal—personal or professional—is critical to providing the motivation and drive to take the necessary actions to achieve the goal. Passion is intangible; some have it, some don’t. As a leader, you must have it, and it must be embedded in your beliefs and values. Your challenge is to create passion among your people. At a minimum, you must develop compelling answers to these questions:

  • Where are we going? (Vision and Strategy)
  • What are we doing to get there? (Action Plans)
  • How can I contribute? (Employee Roles)
  • What is in it for me? (Rewards)

Along with these big issues, there are many other items, such as accountability, measurement and corrective actions, that are critical to creating and, more importantly, sustaining passion among your employees. However, leave no doubt about the importance of passion from people throughout the organization that will be key to your ability to generate adherence.

Colan’s book ends with a quote from President Calvin Coolidge that sums up the importance of adherence in one’s ability to successfully execute strategic plans:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

We operate our businesses in one of the most highly educated countries in the world. We all have seen educated, talented people pass through our organizations on their way up or down the ladder of business success. Many of us have mentored or attempted to bring along a promising protégé.

When you think about all the people you’ve come in contact with over the course of your career, consider what has made them successful. A sound education is certainly a necessary baseline for a great career. Talent on top of education creates a promising mix. But those elements must be fueled by a spark of passion, and—to catch fire—that spark must have a consistent wind at its back. Consistency and adherence are the essentials that make a good person, or a good company, into a great one.

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