Leadership Execution and Action Planning - Harvard Business School MBA Program

Leadership Execution and Action Planning

Course Number 2031

Senior Lecturer David G. Fubini
Fall; Q1Q2; 3 credits
28 sessions
Assistant Professor Ryan L. Raffaelli
Spring; Q3Q4; 3 credits
28 sessions

Leadership Execution and Action Planning (LEAP) focuses on the tenacity, tactics, and grit required to influence action across a wide range of organizational challenges. While traditional leadership courses contemplate “what” is leadership, LEAP focuses on “how” leaders must take action at critical moments to shape their organizations and their careers. The course helps transition students from a classroom understanding of leadership to the often messy reality of rolling up one's sleeves and getting things done. It takes the point of view of a leader who is: (1) new to a situation, (2) must take action, and (3) is asked to operate within a system that she or he may not fully control or has not designed.

New leaders often stumble when tasked with closing the gap between a desired end-state and executing an action plan to achieve a desired outcome. LEAP is designed to give students pattern recognition and practice in developing action plans across a variety organizational challenges they are likely to face early on in their careers, including: turnarounds, crisis management, post-merger integration, global expansion, and organizational reinvention. 

The course will develop skills in diagnosing, designing, and executing complex actions in organizations. It forces students to contemplate the managerial tradeoffs and constraints they will face when tasked with achieving results.

An additional underlying theme of the course focuses on managerial failure, highlighting the major missteps and early career challenges that many leaders fall into. Through the lens of a variety of case protagonists in various stages of their careers, LEAP gives students the opportunity to practice devising implementation plans and identifying execution traps. The course will ask students to evaluate their own blind spots and shortcomings with regard to leadership style, execution management, and career development.

LEAP is an integrated leadership course, building on concepts from organizational behavior, strategy, marketing, finance, and general management. It brings these themes together in a variety of case discussions and exercises that focus on the personal decisions general managers face in high-performance, high-stakes, and career-defining situations. Students will examine leaders in a variety of private and publically owned companies, family businesses, and non-profits. The course will analyze the successes and missteps of the protagonists in each case, nearly half of whom will be present in classroom to discuss their own views and, in some class sessions, to solicit student feedback about their ongoing execution challenges.

Course Objective

LEAP has the following key learning objectives:

  • To develop a manager’s perspective and appreciation for the challenges associated with, and the determination needed to execute, major performance improvement programs.
  • To understand the risks, trade-offs, and constraints leaders face when tasked with achieving results under conditions where they have limited skills, time, and resources available.  
  • To assess the leadership capabilities and interpersonal skills required to become an “implementer /operator.”
  • To present a toolkit of helpful starting points and checklists for implementation plans in common scenarios.

Underlying Themes and Goals

The course develops a manager’s perspective on how to drive program execution in a variety of industry settings. Cases will focus on organizations with protagonist perspectives ranging from CEO to the front-line, initial-entry positions (of the type that many students may experience soon after graduation).

This course will develop implementation and project management skills. A critical skill required of program managers is triage — developing and assigning priorities based on their urgency and importance. Successful execution and change management also requires making tradeoffs given constraints of time, capital, talent, and political capital. LEAP will introduce students to several general tactics, common traps, and tools related to execution. Students will have opportunities to examine the nuances of implementation across a variety of organizational contexts and settings, and from the perspectives of individuals situated at various levels of hierarchy within the organization.

This course will focus on execution. The course focuses on the alignment of tactics required to drive performance across a range of business activities. Case settings will highlight a variety of situational contexts where action is required, ranging from turnarounds to transactions to transformative situations. Students will develop implementation approaches for existing business problems in each module. The course will illustrate how difficult projects get done, how policies and procedures get carried out, how improvements are delivered.

This course provides a framework for driving action and performance. The course demonstrates how driving successful change progresses from diagnosis to design to execution. LEAP will outline five Ms of action: Mindfulness, Momentum, Motivation, Mode, Measurement, and Modification.

  • Mindfulness requires that a leader is analytically, emotionally, and contextually aware.
  • Momentum involves maintaining the existing business, achieving early wins, and preempting potential roadblocks to implementation objectives.
  • Motivation requires finding the right set of financial and psychic rewards to create buy-in and taking steps to retain top talent.
  • Mode refers to where the leader must focus her or his attention in/outside the organization.
  • Measurement involves quantifying an action plan’s outcomes and then determining goals, timelines, and tracking mechanisms to monitor success.
  • Modification refers to the need for mid-course correction and feedback loops needed to adjust programs over time

This course will emphasize learning from failure. A running theme in the course is overcoming adversity and learning from failure. To this end, students are challenged to grapple with their own prior failures while also analyzing several management teams that have experienced major setbacks. Each module includes at least one business case where the leadership team failed to achieve its objectives. The intent is to develop the student’s ability to learn from failure and overcome early failures in a career in order to continue professional advancement. Frequent protagonist participation will also provide students with access to a variety of seasoned executives who will discuss their biggest execution failures.

Course Module Structure

In addition to the Introduction, Written Exercises, and Final Exam, LEAP will have six modules. These modules offer common execution challenges where companies and managers have the right set of objectives and a sound strategy, but where “getting things done” is difficult and implementation results often fall well short of desired outcomes. The modules include:

  • Transactions
  • Turnarounds
  • Crisis
  • Global Expansion and Scaling
  • Reinvention
  • Action Planning Your Career

The cases and supplemental readings will form the basis for what students take away from each class discussion. Many of the cases will feature a protagonist or key team member in the classroom to develop a first-hand appreciation of their leadership style, thought processes, action planning skills, and responses to problems. In addition:

  • One class will be a “place” case — a case taught in the actual business environment to provide even greater context to the business challenges outside the classroom.
  • Two classes will have non-case protagonist leaders in attendance. In one, a crisis management professional, and in another, a CEO, will share a practitioner's perspective of the case under discussion.
  • Failure presentations given by select students will highlight lessons learned from their early experiences, learning from failure, and the value of applying the course’s learning objectives in the real world.
  • An alumni panel will include several students only 3-4 years out of HBS to return and talk about their challenges as they left HBS to start their careers.

While there is some overlap between modules with regard to processes of action planning and execution, the distinct lessons of each segment of the course are outlined below.

Transactions   Business transactions, particularly post-merger integration, are among the most difficult of leadership challenges business managers face in their careers. Even seasoned merger experts serving in highly acquisitive companies make catastrophic (and career-sabotaging) management mistakes while leading through these complex periods of change. The transactions module will discuss some common leadership pitfalls of merger integration, highlight character attributes and management styles that seem prevalent in successful merger leaders, and provide the outline of approaches that might serve as the starting point for a young leader tasked with helping lead her company or an integration team through a complex merger. Among the other topics addressed are:

  • Rigorously designing and executing integration.
  • Choosing the right leadership team.
  • Addressing organization and culture issues and retaining key talent.

Turnaround   Turnarounds represent the highest-risk time to lead a company. Profits are no longer the only losses to consider. The entire brand, workforce, reputation, and company are on the line. Turnaround leaders must rapidly make decisions: what to cut, who to cut, what to keep and how fast it all must happen. The turnaround module will focus on managers directing change in businesses in order to discuss common mistakes, highlight prevalent character attributes and management styles of successful turnaround leaders, and provide the outline of an action plan that might serve as the starting point for one tasked with leading their company or an integration team through a turnaround. Other topics include:

  • Setting the conditions for change.
  • Creating and communicating a turnaround narrative.
  • Protecting the base business while changing direction and maintaining forward movement.

Crisis   A crisis is a turnaround “on steroids.” Here we will examine how the added element of restricted time and lack of information combine to create unique challenges for companies in a crisis situations. Other topics will include:

  • Examining tradeoffs between fast actions and the risk associated with acting with untested approaches.
  • The challenge of leadership in situations where confusion and chaos often exist.

Global Expansion and Scaling   Expansion is inherently risky, but managers tend to focus only on the risk brought by an increased geographical footprint. Scaling a business, particularly into new geographical markets, will also involve addressing cultural, administrative, and political and economic tradeoffs. Successful leadership in these scenarios requires managers who are capable of action planning for growth as well as exerting control and influence across cultural, political, and economic divides. This module will focus on the management of businesses through critical expansion phases in order to highlight common leadership pitfalls, identify management styles that seem prevalent in successful global growth leaders, and discuss action plans that could serve as the starting point for a young leader tasked with geographic expansion. Among the other topics addressed are:

  • Managing across and integrating different cultures.
  • Establishing global systems and integrated structures across growing geographic footprints while simultaneously allowing for local innovation and preferences.
  • The importance of respecting and working through existing informal structures to align business units across borders and cultural divides.

Reinvention   Reinvention is a process whereby established organizations respond to external environmental shifts that threaten to upend their core business model, technologies, cultural values, and/or operational norms. Reinvention represents a managerial paradox: executives must both preserve and change aspects of the business that once made them successful but could render the organization obsolete in the near future. This module will examine several mature businesses that faced a near collapse and how their leaders attempted to redefine the organization to attract new consumers and markets.  Other topics include:

  • How innovations affect mature organizations and how to respond to technological shocks. 
  • How firms both preserve and change elements of “what we do” (their strategy) and “who we are” (their organizational identity).
  • How to attract new talent and infuse confidence back into a workforce that has suffered a significant downfall.

Action Planning Your Career  The career module focuses on analyzing career paths, tradeoffs between personal ethics and success, and, importantly, navigating failure. The module provides students an opportunity to contemplate their objectives, and provides students with examples of overzealous life planning and the unforeseen interpersonal or ethical dilemmas that might derail a career plan. Additional key topics are:

  • The tradeoffs between mapping career goals and maintaining work-life balance.
  • Career resiliency and overcoming early failures after graduation.
  • Individual action plans related to the likely career transitions students will face in the next 5-10 years.

Grading and Evaluation

Class participation, a written action planning exercise, and a final exam are the three evaluation methods used in LEAP.
Class participation will comprise 50% of the grade. Participation will be evaluated for both frequency and quality. Absences and lack of preparation will have a significantly negative impact on participation grades. As part of the participation grade, students will also submit a short written analysis of a failure they experienced in their professional endeavors prior to (or while at) at HBS. The essay will describe a significant failure, discusses lessons learned from the failure, and how the student dealt with the aftermath. Several individuals (4-5) per section will be chosen to present their failures and the lessons learned to the rest of the class at the end of the semester. 

A midterm graded written exercise that outlines an action program will comprise 15% of the grade. Submissions will be evaluated for thoroughness, thoughtfulness, and practical assessment of tradeoffs needed to devise and execute a thoughtful action program.

The final exam will comprise 35% of the grade. It will be scheduled during the exam period following the last day of class.