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Execution and Engagement:
Can Leaders be Ambidextrous?

Doing both well is critical

In the tug of war between getting work done and creating a place where employees love the work they do and are committed to doing it at your organization, can leaders be great at both?

“Few leaders were truly ambidextrous—at the more senior levels, the majority of leaders scored higher on execution and lower on engagement; furthermore, balance almost disappears.”

Senior Leaders Lose Their Grip on Engagement as Execution Grows Stronger

Whether it’s completing a major project or setting the strategic course for an entire organization, leaders must rely on two essential clusters of behaviors: engagement and execution. Execution is about getting something done or driving a course of action; engagement concerns ensuring that people are fully absorbed in their work and inherently committed to the organization’s purpose and values. Typically, engaged employees are more satisfied with their work and have a greater sense of well-being.

Unfortunately, many organizations are doing poorly in both areas. A PwC study* revealed that upwards of 50 percent of organizations are ill-equipped to execute on their business strategies, while small percentages of the global workforce are engaged in their jobs.**

The question we set out to answer is this: Do leaders have the skills to do either and / or both well? Our answer: It depends.

Evidence

We started by comparing leadership indexes for both engagement and execution that were based on a subset of competencies and actions included in our assessment process. (see “Executive and Engagement Behaviors” sidebar) We designated the leaders who had high assessment scores in execution or engagement.

The results are startlingly disappointing. Of the leaders we sampled, 17 percent were highly capable in the execution composite, and only 1 in 10 in the engagement composite. Worse, few leaders were truly ambidextrous at both. Is there a difference by level? The “Shifting Balance” figure shows a clear trend. At the lowest leader level, 31 percent scored higher on the engagement composite, while 21 percent were higher on the execution side. They had equal scores 48 percent of the time. At the more senior levels, the majority of leaders scored higher on execution and lower on engagement; furthermore, balance almost disappears. For instance, at the strategic/executive leader levels, two out of three leaders scored higher in the ability to execute, while not even one in five scored equally.

Action

  1. While a lack of flawless execution can lead to lower engagement, the reverse is more likely. The ability to execute heavily depends on the engagement of those who need to carry the initiative forward. Slightly more balance in the top ranks would go a long way toward reducing the risk of failed strategy. Attend more to promotion consideration for those with strong engagement behaviors and hold all leaders responsible for engagement and culture survey metrics.
  2. Your performance management approach is the single most critical HR (or, for that matter, business) system for driving execution. Use cascading goals and a stronger emphasis on accountability to up your odds of executive-level success.
  3. For over a decade, we have demonstrated that leadership behaviors are instrumental for driving engagement. Unfortunately, we’ve seen little improvement in those behaviors. The good news is that our research shows those behaviors can be developed through a combination of formal training and practice.
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High Resolution Leadership
A Synthesis of 15,000 Assessments into How Leaders Shape the Business Landscape

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