15 Sep 2016 19:39 IST

Don't be a NATO leader

A lot of managers are No Action, Talk Only. Here’s how you can avoid falling into that trap

When I was working in Singapore, the team there had coined a term for their colleagues who did a lot of talking but failed to deliver on their commitments. They called them ‘NATO’ people — No Action, Talk Only.

I found it an amusing, but piercing way of highlighting what can only be called a dangerous trait in any leader.

Strategy vs. execution

Organisations often fail not because of poor strategy but because of poor execution. That’s because their leaders are not execution-focussed leaders.

This is a habit that starts early. Someone who avoids responsibility at home, at school or university, makes excuses for late submission of an assignment, resents feedback, prefers talking over doing, is sowing seeds for poor execution in the work world later.

The skill to execute well is prized. So what does it take?

Facing reality

Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy in their book ‘ Execution’, defined the term as ‘a systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it’. Jesus said the same thing in the power packed declaration ‘The truth shall set you free’.

But most leaders who struggle with execution avoid the truth. They fail to confront reality. They choose, instead, to comfort themselves with illusion and self-deception. Several corporate blow-ups, from Enron to Kingfisher Airlines, can be traced back to a hesitancy to confront hard facts.

~ Warning signs: There is a tendency to avoid hearing bad news on customer complaints, to ignore the behaviour that’s leading up to non-compliance. There’s an inclination to gloss over extravagant spending or mask performance issues that won’t go away.

All these become fertile ground for a poor execution record. Very often, we disguise what’s likely to happen with what we hope will happen.

Instead, we must be ‘pessimists of the intellect and optimists of the will’ — intent on aiming for the big vision, but rigorous in pursuing the truth about the constraints, risks and limitations that surround us.

Chanda Kochhar, ICICI Bank’s Managing Director and CEO hammers this home, in an interview she gave to McKinsey: “As CEO, I have to be very close to reality while at the same time keeping the big picture in mind. Getting that mix right — thinking strategically and staying close to execution — is the essence of the CEO’s job.”

~Countering bad performance: Sometimes poor execution results when personal humility is missing. The arrogance brought on by hubris blinds leaders to their weaknesses and gives them a false sense of confidence. Mergers and acquisitions that have gone wrong, or an ambitious but misguided high-spending strategy can often be traced back to leaders having ‘delusions of adequacy’.

“Am I open to feedback, even actively seeking it, especially critical feedback? Am I willing to be challenged on a point of view without feeling personally affronted? Can I admit I’m wrong?” These are important questions to ask in the classroom today, because the answers will help shape us to be more effective, execution-driven leaders in the work-world tomorrow.

As that rare high-performance politician (Mario Cuomo) will tell you, “You campaign in poetry, but govern in prose”.

A bias for action

Leaders can sometimes mistake articulation for action. This is what happens during meetings that last for hours, endless PowerPoint slides, and big debates on small issues. Talking about a problem does not solve it. It may help clarify issues but beyond a point, it’s merely an excuse for delaying action.

Sometimes, an endless dissection of a problem creates analysis-paralysis. Execution-focussed leaders display a strong bias for action. Their meetings are short, snappy and demand outcomes. Their questions are incisive and cut to the chase. They are willing to listen but only to harvest key information that will help make a decision and act.

Sometimes, leaders tend to operate as helicopter leaders — so far off the ground that they cannot see reality. Sometimes, they tell themselves that their job is strategy, and that execution is for lesser mortals. Paul Polman, Unilever’s Chairman and CEO, had the right message for such leaders when he was asked what Unilever’s strategy was: “Our strategy is execution”.

So at business school today, do I end up talking more and acting less? Do I sense a temptation to embark on lengthy analysis when only simple action is called for? Do I beat around the bush when making a point? These answers should help wean us away from needless chatter and make action our focus.

Accountability and integrity

Sunil Mittal, Chairman of Bharti, has a reputation for not taking “I’ll try” for an answer from his leaders. If there’s an action required to be taken by somebody on the team, they are expected to either say “Yes I’ll do it” or “No, I will not.”

It reminds me of that classic scene in Star Wars, when Yoda is training his apprentice Luke Skywalker, to lift his sunken spaceship with the power of his mind. Luke says, “I’ll try”. Yoda responds strongly, “Do or do not do. There is no try”.

Taking accountability for acting distinguishes the execution-driven leader from his more passive counterpart. He is willing to raise his hand and say, “Put my name against that problem or project. I’ll make it happen.”

~ Team-work caveat: One of the practices I found useful is to always ensure that every action had only one name against it. I would often find colleagues bring action plans with Ramesh / Rakesh / Rupa against it. That’s a recipe for vigorous inaction. As the saying goes, “A slave with two masters is a free man”. Every action needs one clear owner if it has to have any chance of getting done.

The next step is to have the integrity to follow up and keep commitments that have been made — a habit of keeping my word. So by all means, apply your mind, consider all the angles, do the analysis, but don’t hesitate. As Nike puts it, “Just Do It”.

Recommended for you