Accidental Captains

24 Dec 2018
Accidental Captains

Wouldn’t it be scary if captains of ships were hired at random, instead of through a careful selection process?

Selecting leaders for critical roles requires an understanding of the competencies needed to succeed in the role, as well as identifying and assessing candidates who are well matched for the role.

If the required competencies are not understood at a holistic level and the assessment process is either faulty or non-existent, the selection of leaders becomes almost accidental—a recipe for failure.


Proper selection is derailed by a number of corporate mechanisms:

  • Personal biases of senior leaders
  • Delegation of decision-making to people far removed from the context
  • Letting hierarchy drive selection
  • Relying on past performance
  • Allowing ad hoc factors such as availability and popularity determine who within the organisation ‘captains’ the implementation of strategy.


In short, it is effectively left to chance, drastically reducing the possibility of a successful implementation before it even begins.

Typically, corporate leaders over-index on devising strategies and under-index on managerial efforts to execute them. Traditional and dated management paradigms, many still practised by companies, treat strategy and execution as sequential, with top management believing their key role diminished after the strategy phase.

Unfortunately, the irony is that these same leaders acknowledge that without effective execution, formulating a great strategy will create little value for their organisations. Research also suggests that many of these leaders are aware that disappointing outcomes result more often from ‘hiccups’ in execution rather than flawed strategies.

Strategy and execution, by their very nature, are intertwined. Top managers have an equally prominent role in leading execution, ensuring they create the right organisational design, and enabling a supportive environment to effectively realise outcomes.


Successful strategy implementation remains elusive


It is well accepted that implementing strategy is challenging due to the complexity of the process and context of its execution. Despite considerable effort and progress made in understanding the challenges of implementing strategy, successful outcomes have remained elusive for most organisations.


Four key themes emerged in the research that characterise the identified symptoms of failed execution.

  1. The strategy itself lacks strength and clarity, or issues that arise from the timing, magnitude, or speed of change that the strategy mandates.
  2. Frequent issues arise from not addressing structural issues such as incompatible organisational structure, ineffective redesign of business processes and systems, or lack of understanding around softer issues linked to capabilities and behaviour.
  3. Inefficiencies in ‘hard’ tactical execution considerations while operationalising the execution plan, such as allocating resources, or inadequacies in handling tactical ‘soft’ considerations such as failing to gain buy-in from employees, or unsuccessfully managing upwards or laterally to secure collaboration and support.
  4. People-related issues like not having the right people or the right skills, lack of coordination, resistance to change, lack of commitment, lack of adaptability, lack of understanding of strategy, etc.


Beyond these themes, some execution issues could also be underpinned by external disruptions in technology and changes in the business operating environment.

Although researchers have examined micro-level practices of key managerial pools involved in strategy execution, top management has often been the subject of discussion, rather than middle managers.

While top managers may provide a facilitative environment for successful strategy implementation, they often do not see themselves as key participants in implementation. Consequently, top managers may play inspirational but distant ‘figurehead’ roles and their impact on outcomes appears mixed.


Focusing on the key management pool


Middle managers are typically located below top management and above first-line managers. They are the link between top managers and bottom operational workers and play a vital role in transforming strategic intent into organisational action. Their knowledge of frontline operations, customers and employees makes middle managers the key managerial resource for strategy execution.

Over the years, the role of middle managers has become increasingly critical as decision-making in organisations has evolved from traditional, hierarchical and centralised to decentralised with greater empowerment along horizontal dimensions. Addressing the various challenges during the long, arduous execution journey requires that ‘captains’ be well-equipped with multifaceted capabilities. Middle managers will find it difficult to deliver successful outcomes if they do not possess most of the key competencies required.


Those chosen for such important roles face challenges on multiple fronts such as:

  • Understanding, synthesising and communicating the strategy to subordinates, persuading and motivating subordinates to make changes
  • Managing upwards and sideways to gain support and manage changes at organisational boundaries
  • earning new things and adapting existing practices


The burden of complex and diverse tasks can be overwhelming to middle managers and they can often feel that the task is on their shoulders alone. This can be daunting as they also have to recognise their own limitations and the project’s time constraints while performing many critical tasks.

To bolster the effectiveness of middle managers, top management can play a key role by recognising the crucial role of middle managers and supporting them in their mission. This is critical, as without sufficient directional, organisational and motivational support from top management, middle managers are less likely to back the strategy and can even undermine it.

Another factor influencing success for some middle managers is congruence between their personal goals and strategic goals of the company. This consistency in goals can create higher levels of motivation and performance.

Beyond these influences, the most important factor for middle managers to be successful in their execution journey is having the right competencies for leading successful strategy implementation. Middle managers are basically organisational lynchpins in strategy implementation, and to be successful, they need to be carefully chosen and supported.

Leaving their selection effectively to chance and creating ‘accidental captains’ is a crucial lapse in management practice and may well be a key contributor to many well-intentioned but failed strategy execution efforts


Tactical considerations to avoid creating accidental captains


Organisations need to prioritise developing and institutionalising robust procedures for the selection of middle managers leading strategy execution. It is imperative for them to look beyond traditional selection criteria for middle managers and begin using competency-based criteria.

Traditional criteria are typically deemed important for selecting a manager to helm implementation. Sometimes, even though corporate leaders have second thoughts about their choices, they still resort to using such criteria because it has been used before and for the lack of any better alternative to guide their selection.

A good place for organisations to start is to assess which competencies would enable their middle managers to lead a particular successful strategy execution. Next, they can take stock of the competencies currently residing in their key managerial pool. They would require procedures and tools that enable competency assessments for selecting the right middle managers.

There are competencies that distinguish effective middle managers who are more likely to be successful. These competencies enable middle managers to effectively deal with the multi-level contextual requirements that are encountered during strategy implementation. Such distinguishing competencies are beyond the typical requirements sought for middle managers.


Five key competencies of middle managers that are more likely to lead to successful strategy implementation and relate to the abilities of middle managers include:

  • Strategic and systems thinking
  • Action orientation
  • Networking ability
  • Learning and adaptability
  • Leading and developing people


Applying these competency guidelines could create a more holistic roadmap for middle manager development, as well as enable matching competencies within teams. Conversely, the absence of these competencies in the execution team could potentially result in dysfunctional responses from middle managers when they encounter the typical challenges of strategy implementation.

Organisational leaders need to secure a critical mass of middle managers with capabilities to lead successful strategy execution and build bench strength in anticipation of the need for execution capacity.

By creating organisational programmes for training, development and performance measurement of such competencies, they will mitigate the risks of leaving execution outcomes to chance.

Given that strategic changes are inevitable and constant, leaders need to strive to create opportunities for middle managers to build competencies in action orientation, networking and leading people. Additionally, they need to ensure sufficient coaching and development of promising middle managers in strategic thinking and adaptability.


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Originally published by the SMU Centre for Management Practice, 11 Dec 2018 by Dr. Zafar A. Momin