Vision + Execution = Greatness

Vision is core to good leadership, and the best management. It is the essence of successful programs, the heart of effective transformation and the engine of innovation.

It is also what teams want from their leaders. James Kouzes and Barry Posner once wrote in the Harvard Business Review:

 “Being forward-looking—envisioning exciting possibilities and enlisting others in a shared view of the future—is the attribute that most distinguishes leaders from non-leaders. We know this because we asked followers.”

The Kennedy Commitment

One of my favourite examples of how an extraordinary vision can become reality is when Kennedy promised the world, before the US had even fifteen minutes of manned spaceflight experience:  “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
The Kennedy vision is truly remarkable because it was achieved, in full. The simple promise was turned to powerful reality by the leadership, intense focus and personal commitment of 400,000 people at peak.

Vision + Execution = Greatness

So, for me the essence of real leadership is precisely this combining of vision with the ability to execute. Another leadership thinker, Warren Bennis, once said:  “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”
This is not straightforward. Many of us will have seen corporate vision or strategy documents that are strong on the Promised Land, but not the hardships and challenges of the journey to get there. Many good ideas come to grief on the cold, sharp-edged rocks of delivery.

Example: The Global Delivery Network

My own most intense experience of combining big vision and successful execution comes from building the Accenture Global Delivery Network, and, within that, its Indian Delivery Centres. Today, the company is one of the dominant players in India-based and global delivery of technology services. In hindsight, the journey seems inevitable, almost a slam-dunk. But it wasn’t always like this.We started practical work with a small core team of India leaders, Brits and Americans in late 2000, at the request of the charismatic, global head of Financial Services. He felt the intensity of coming global competition, and had the vision to take action.

This core team would become true masters of delivery and client service. They would achieve extraordinary things in their careers. (And to give credit were it is due, we were also strongly supported by experienced leaders in the US and Spain, reflecting the already global personality of the company. They would give us resources and counsel.)

Meeting in Mumbai

The initiative and initial investment was based on creation of an initial team of just 200 people. There are now 100,000s of people in the firm’s global delivery network. At the time that would have seemed to many the purest fantasy, although some of us had a glimmer of what might be possible. However, we were starting with a small step.
By the summer of 2001 had two clients and the 200 seats in the India city of Mumbai, only partially filled with people. Our initial task was getting close to completion. But we knew that our responsibility was much greater, and it was time to plan the next stage.
So in a meeting room in Mumbai, lit brightly by sunlight, we discussed want we wanted to achieve. We needed an aspirational vision but it needed to be practical, based on specific goals and achievements that we could easily communicate.

Vision on a Whiteboard

At the end of our discussion, I drew a whiteboard diagram to summarize and took a photo for future reference. I felt that it would be important, at least as a personal memento. In fact, it would years later be published in a celebration of the Indian team’s success. Although it was formalised and turned into detailed, properly costed plans, our simple whiteboard summary turned out to be a foundation stone.
The essence of this vision was what we needed to do to catalyse growth. Unlike typical start-ups, we were blessed with a vast and impressive existing channel. We needed scale and momentum, coupled with our first core offerings. We had to convince our salesforce and then our real clients we were credible in a new market. I had an instinct that once we passed that test of credibility, our growth rates would look exponential. And so it was to be. But first we had to get started.
So, the top half of the whiteboard looked like the following. (Our financial year ran from September to August, so Q1 of FY2002 starts in September 2001).
 Slide1-001

Simple Targets

This wasn’t a conventional vision or strategy. It was stripped down to a bare minimum of supply-side metrics. But it would serve its purpose. It covered the following:
  • CMM targets that refered to the 5-level Capability Maturity Model from the Software Engineering Institute located at Carnegie Mellon University. This aims to measure the quality of software delivery processes. The true value of CMM – and its descendents like CMMi – is subject to debate. However, it does require a rigorous focus on process and quality, and was essential to competing in this new market. We had to reach the highest levels of the model fast. These targets would soon evolve into a much more profound focus on offerings and industrialisation.
  • Most importantly, the diagram showed the headcount growth we wanted to achieve in the next two years – headcount would be a vital and simple metric of our progress. The goals we put down – given we were starting from scratch – were tough. We would have to keep the people we hired busy, engaged and chargeable. We were in essence already anticipating an exponential growth curve.
  • The diagram also shows our intent to move into three cities as part of building a platform for growth. Getting support for this rapid geographic expansion would not be easy, but it would provide flexibility and scalability. In fact we opened in 2002 in Bangalore, followed by Hyderabad a little later. Bangalore was destined to become a true global hub.

Building a Team

The second half of the board contained another diagram that I have also recreated below. It shows something else we realised very early on. We need a focus on building a team for the future, not simply a collection of new resources, but a group of people – a real team – who shared a strong sense of culture and common cause. Slide2-001

Communicating the Vision

We now had goals that were hard to achieve, but inspirational for our core team, easy to measure and simple to communicate. This was also fundamental. As PeterDrucker once said: “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.” We needed to be able to straightforwardly tell our story and our intent to a team freshly hired, and get them to become leaders in a  long journey of transformation. We used our whiteboard goals as the anchor for that process.

Start-Up Days

Work started very practically, with the joys and stresses of any good start-up. One of team – who was destined to become a much respected Senior Managing Director – help dig the cable trenches in the tarmac outside the main building. We built our first big client meeting room the day before our first big client meeting. Recruiting was hard at first. Really hard. We hadn’t built our brand in the relevant technology talent pools. We did have a thriving local consulting practice. However, we were unknown to the people we needed for tech work. The vision helped. So did phone calls and events with candidates, their parents and families to show our intent, and the possibilities ahead. Our India leaders worked hard to sell our story, and with passion. Good people began to join us.

A Key Test

Then came a moment that I have written about before, but remains a pivot point of this slice of history. We had reached 500 people, and acquired more space. Overall, with a little difficultly, we had balanced demand and supply effectively. Our HR team had made a brilliant start. Now demand for people was increasing. We were beginning to see supply challenges. It was the start of the exponential growth curve I had expected, hoped for and feared, just a little. I asked our talented local leaders this: Although, it has taken eighteen months to grow to 500 peoplewe need to hire 500 people in the next five weeks. Can you do it? Those who have built and worked in start-ups know how hard an ask this was. And what the mood of that meeting, when a world of pain and hard work was opening up before us? It was tremendous – full of energy and laughter. They had a can-do, will-do attitude”  and were committed to the vision. They went for it. We hired many HR contractors, and arranged for virtual interviews across the globe. We created a large war room with white boards to record real-time status. And then we held interviews, thousands of times. By the end of the period they had made 526 offers to good candidates. This was a break through moment. The India team went to trounce all the targets in the initial strategy. They had a vision, they had executed well.  When we found a rare moment to reflect, we all felt we had shared in a period of great accomplishment.

Evolving the Vision

After that we adapted the vision and strategy on a six-monthly basis. It become a regular part of our process, both in India and globally. We looked ahead at our business challenges and opportunities, at what innovations were possible and what offerings would drive growth. We worked on horizons of now (immediate issues), three months, 12 months and 3-5 years. As a result, we drove higher levels of industrialisation, delivery innovation and accountability. We added a strong focus on business and industry skills. We opened in seven cities, and introduced ways of dealing with huge scale. We introduced offshore approaches to consulting and systems integration, beyond the normal outsourcing focus of global delivery. Throughout the focus remained on vision and execution.

Looking to the Future

What of the future? Global delivery models are now part of the fabric of IT services.  They are standard, and expected. However, as always, there is new opportunity on the horizon. This is not so much from fashionable digital business models. These are important,  but even more important is the systematic underlying change from an old world of devices and systems to a new universe of services and infinite sharing in the cloud. Agility becomes possible at scale in ways it never has before, and our connection with technology will be completely transformed. So, there is still plenty of scope for leadership that combines ambitious vision, and successful execution. There are still histories to be made.

Keith Haviland

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services. He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.  Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

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