In 2006, the NBA introduced a new basketball made of synthetic material. Spalding designed the new ball to be easier to handle and bounce better on the court. Despite the upgrades, many NBA players began experiencing cut fingers and torn ligaments, and the ball was sticking to their hands during games. What tested well in the manufacturer’s lab did not work well on the court.

After complaints from stars like Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and Steve Nash, NBA Commissioner David Stern admitted it was a mistake not to consult with players before making the decision to change the ball’s design. The NBA went back to using the leather ball after just a few months of using the synthetic one. The strategy was well-intentioned, but its execution did not play out well. Had the league solicited input from players during the process, it would have saved a significant amount of time and money.

The real world often interferes with even the most solid strategies, setting off a whole list of derailments. Priorities shift. Timelines get pushed back. Plans change. These situations require leaders with strong strategy execution skills. Much of the work of identifying and developing these skills falls to human resource professionals and talent managers.

If you are on the front lines of hiring, promoting and training leaders within your organizations, here are two ways you can enhance their ability to execute.

Know What Makes A Leader Excel At Execution

Whenever your organization implements a strategy, it’s inevitable something will happen to alter the course of the original plan. Leaders must be able to manage change effectively and be able to adapt when they encounter obstacles. They must be flexible and not view changes as failures, but as adjustments to the objective they are working on.

Other important characteristics of leaders who excel at strategy execution include:

  • Action Orientation — Being able to take practical action when necessary to handle a problem or situation.
  • Problem Solving — The ability to find cause of and solution to a complex issue.
  • Decision Making — The ability to weigh the pros and cons of situations and take the best action possible.
  • Results Orientation — Understand what results are most important to the strategy and focusing on how to achieve them.
  • Leading Cross-Functional Teams — The ability to influence others when you don’t have established authority.

Those involved in hiring and promoting need to be able to identify these qualities in candidates. Ask candidates to provide specific examples of situations when they had to act quickly, solve complicated problems and think through an important decision.

Conduct Assessments and Develop Training

Before you can address your company’s leadership challenges, you must identify the gaps. Conduct assessments to determine the extent to which your existing leaders and high-potential employees have the skills required to effectively execute plans and initiatives.

Be sure your succession plans account for strategy execution. Assessment tools such as 360 assessments, behavioral interviews, leadership questionnaires and simulations based on strategic scenarios the leader may face can help you screen for this important skill.

After completing the assessments and interpreting their results, develop learning experiences that enhance candidates’ strengths and addresses weaknesses. Offer different methods of training for optimal engagement. Effective training programs include webinars, on-the-job experiences, action learning, e-learning programs and in-person classes.

Keep in mind that most skills will still be learned on the job. Consider the 70/20/10 model of leadership development: Approximately 70 percent of learning takes place on the job, 20 percent as a result of coaching and mentoring and 10 percent from classroom training. Much of what your potential leaders learn will occur while they are in active leadership roles, and the time you have to influence them through training and coaching is relatively short in comparison. That makes it that much more important to make training count so when leaders are on their own, they don’t develop bad habits or “unlearn” what they’ve been taught. This is why training and coaching should be ongoing.

The Bottom Line

The skills and behaviors that make someone an effective leader don’t always come naturally, but they can be learned through training and coaching.

Developing leaders who excel at strategy execution requires thoughtful planning and preparation.