(This is the third in a series of four articles on the Four Cornerstones for Business Success.)
In the first article, I outlined the Cornerstone of Purpose, the underlying foundation for your business. With clear purpose comes intention and commitment. The second Cornerstone, Strategies, is about using analysis and judgment to determine a chosen strategic path. With intelligent strategies comes focused effort and decisions about resource allocation. The third Cornerstone is Skill. Expertise and execution are the tangible manifestations of a company’s purpose and strategies, so now the matter of skill becomes particularly relevant. Without excellence in execution, even inspired purpose and brilliant strategies will be for naught. In strategic planning circles, the saying goes, "Execution trumps strategy every time."
Execution is the implementation of the strategies you have chosen. The Skill factor is the consideration of both how and how well things get done. What are the quality control systems? How timely is the work? What are the standards for performance, from ethics to customer service to business practices? Excellence in execution requires a commitment to long-term internal development efforts, investing in the human capital as well as the other resources needed to get the work done. Skill-building needs to be continuous, and addressed on many different levels, starting with the individual.
In organizations, the greater each individual’s skill level, the higher the caliber of the overall work by the enterprise. Some skills come with the person and some can be learned or developed on the job. As Jim Collins puts it so well in his excellent book From Good to Great, the first task is to “get the right people on the bus.” Hire the most intelligent and skilled people you can into every position, then provide them with the resources to do their jobs.
Groups are the next level. Every organization has both formal and informal groups. An effective group is more than the aggregate of its individual members. Intelligent systems and procedures, good communication, high levels of trust, and a spirit of teamwork are all examples of group skills. If you ever had the good fortune to be part of a true team, whether at work, in athletics, or informally, you understand how powerful a team can be. The high levels of performance, morale, and productivity on a true team are well worth striving for -- it's one of the great joys of organizational life.
Even more complex (and exponentially more powerful) are the gains that can be made with company-wide skills. Over time, organizations develop a character, a “company personality,” and ideally, a set of skills as a result the cumulative efforts of all the individuals that have influenced its history. Organizational skills can be nourished and taught, and they are best appreciated from a long-term perspective.
Just a few examples of company-wide skills include: resilience, innovation, discipline, and conflict resolution. One of the most important company-wide skill sets for long term success is developing a culture of accountability. Companies where accountability is clear and systems are in place to support this expectation are dramatically more successful than companies where accountability is lax.
Here's an example of a very successful company with a high level of skill throughout the entire organization. While working closely with an engineering firm, I observed a strong commitment to excellence. High performance standards permeated the company. Examples of their company-wide commitment to a high level of skill include: an internal leadership development program, a system of quarterly performance reviews, and a variety of recognition programs - for professional certifications earned as well as community service, project management and business development.