The 5 Essential Disciplines of Execution

By Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood, Joe Hanson | May 18, 2022

Key Take-Aways:

Since the release of our book The Leadership Code, we have pointed out the value of a leader's ability to execute. In today’s business environment that value is no less relevant. Leaders—and their organizations--benefit from following certain disciplines that help drive execution with a clear focus on customer needs and organizational culture. Taking notes from Sir Isaac Newton, an object at rest remains at rest…unless acted on by an outside force. The leader’s role needs to be a catalyst for execution and direction.

The Leadership Code

Creating the right culture and providing guidance to impact decision-making stand on the shoulders of the original 5 execution disciplines. Below we have outlined them for you.

1. Make Change Happen

Whether dealing with small incremental change or uprooting an entire system, leaders play a key role in making change happen. No system or process is ever in stasis: customer needs evolve, technologies improve, continuous innovations are required and new opportunities arise just as existing opportunities dry up.

While the agility to make change happen is more critical than ever, the basic principles of making change happen are well-researched:

  • Leadership support: Change requires effort and changes that have adequate leadership support (time and resources) are more likely to get implemented.
  • Clear need: Changes that have a compellingly articulated shared understanding about why the change is important are more likely to get implemented.
  • Clear outcome: Where the end state or the outcome of the change has been clearly articulated it is more likely to be achieved.
  • Stakeholder buy-in: Knowing who and how to engage stakeholders ensures the change has the commitment and support needed from the people that matter most to be able to succeed.
  • Decision process: Change often gets bogged down when decisions aren’t made or it isn’t clear who can make them, anticipating and driving decision-making facilitates successful change.
  • Dedicated resources: Making a change requires dedicated information, money, and talent to plan and institutionalize the change.
  • Monitoring and learning: No change process ever proceeds in a linear fashion without having to make adjustments and leaders who monitor progress and adjust in real-time are more likely to see successful change outcomes.

2. Follow Decision Protocol

By creating a pattern of decisions, leaders shape identity and set the example for how their team, division, or enterprise goes about executing. Clear decisions allow focused and timely actions while ambiguity delays actions, or forces other people to guess the next thing to do.
Leaders can create better discipline around decision making with these questions: 

  • What is the decision that needs to be made? 
  • Who is accountable for making the decision? 
  • When will the decision be made and announced? 
  • What information needs to be collected and who needs to be involved?
  • How will we follow up to make sure learning occurs after the results of the decision are clear? 

In today’s world, connecting leaders to data that guides decision-making is more possible and critical than ever. With the level of data available today, data analytics are no longer limited to scorecards and dashboards. Instead, data can provide insights into intervention resulting in high impact. Information impact comes when data informs which actions deliver the most value to key stakeholders (employees, business, customers, and investors). Customers benefit when leaders who are the decision-makers are clear about the information that helps direct employees to deliver greater stakeholder value. Stakeholders benefit when decision-makers are clear about which data matters and are using the data to influence their choices.  

3. Ensure Accountability

When an individual or team feels personal ownership and responsibility to get something done, they are accountable. Whether in large or small organizations, clear accountability about who will do what leads to action and results. That accountability increases when there are clear standards, consequences, and feedback. 

That accountability must include connecting employees with customer needs through the “Right Culture.” In order to build the right culture, leaders must take an outside-in approach and consider the way customers, investors, and communities identify their firm. That view must then be translated and made real for all employees at every level. Leaders play a front-line role in helping employees understand the culture and ultimately helping the customers succeed. Today’s hybrid work boundaries are no longer limited to a physical “place.”  It is even more imperative for leaders to lead and connect the outside-in to employees and to create accountability around the realization of that culture.  

4. Build Teams

Excellence in execution depends on excellent teams. People with different skills and abilities working toward a common goal encourages new ideas, new approaches, and renewed commitment. Teams also provide stability in an organization. Effective executors run teams with a clear purpose, defined processes with clear roles and decision-making protocols, strong relationships, and ongoing learning.  One of the key challenges many organizations have encountered in the last two years is how to maintain high-performance teams with the disruptions to normal working patterns introduced by the pandemic.  

Leaders build teams in today’s world by:

  • Creating and communicating a clear and compelling purpose that resonates with their teams.
  • Not allowing changing work settings, structures, or routines to create confusion about the team’s governance processes, individual roles, or decision-making accountability.
  • Being creative and deliberate about ensuring team forums have time and space for both positive relationship-building activities and constructive discussion and disagreement.
  • Finding ways to build team capability through online learning (individually and collectively), best practice sharing, after-action project reviews, and other ways to evaluate and improve individual and collective performance.

5. Ensure Technical Proficiency 

Leaders must be concerned about their individual technical proficiency as well as ensuring that their organization contains technical experts in each field. Ensuring technical proficiency has long-term consequences for the individual and organization because most leaders begin careers by demonstrating technical excellence. 

Today’s leaders can ensure technical proficiency by:

  • Being aware of emerging trends that impact the technical skills needed for success.
  • Proactively identifying ways to build those skills on their team through partnerships with local educational institutions, other companies, skill-building courses or training programs, or cross-training within the organization.


Execution is the ability to turn what we know into what we do, and it ensures that we get where we want to go. When practiced, these five disciplines will lead to results: 

  • Make Change Happen
  • Follow Decision Protocol
  • Ensure Accountability 
  • Build Teams
  • Ensure Technical Proficiency

Through the years, we have created many tools to help leaders at every level of the organization become the executor they need to be to get the outcomes they desire. You can read more about the Leadership Code here.

In addition to building fundamental leadership skills like these, organizations that outperform their competitors have clearly identified and reinforced a distinct leadership brand that creates alignment between the promises they make to customers and investors and the behaviors they expect from their leaders.

To build leaders who can execute in today’s world, consider RBL’s Leadership Code Academy

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

About the author

Norm Smallwood is a partner and co-founder of The RBL Group. His research and consulting focuses on helping organizations increase business value by building organization, leadership, and people capabilities that measurably impact market value. He has written extensively about leadership and organization effectiveness in eight books and over a hundred articles. 

About the author

Joe Hanson is a Partner with The RBL Group and an experienced consultant recognized for his work leading businesses through turnaround and transformation.

About the author
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