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: (1) is 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: transactions, turnarounds, crisis management, scaling and 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 publicly 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:

  1. To develop a leader’s perspective and appreciation for the challenges associated with, and the determination needed to execute major performance improvement programs;
  2. 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;
  3. To assess the leadership capabilities and interpersonal skills required to become an “implementer /operator.”

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 &mdash 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 and how improvements are delivered.

This course provides frameworks to guide the process of developing and implementing action. LEAP demonstrates “how” to lead implementation efforts &mdash from diagnosis to design to execution. It presents several frameworks to help students with various action-planning challenges:

  • How to determine whether the “agreed upon” goal is actually an “achievable” goal.
  • How to identify contextual, analytical, and emotional roadblocks.
  • How to evaluate tradeoffs among resources (capital, talent, and time).
  • How to manage stakeholders in positions of power, both formal and informal.
  • How to create alignment among the culture, formal organization, people, and critical tasks.

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

Course Module Structure

The course is organized into six modules that illustrate execution challenges where leaders may have the right set of objectives and a sound strategy, but “getting things done” is difficult and results often fall short of desired outcomes. 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:

Module 1: 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 make catastrophic (and career-sabotaging) mistakes while leading through these complex periods of change. The transactions module discusses the common leadership pitfalls of merger integration, highlights management styles that seem relevant in successful merger leaders, and it offers approaches that can serve as a starting point for leading a merger process.  Other topics include:

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

Module 2: Turnarounds in For-Profits and Non-Profit Organizations    Turnarounds represent a high-risk execution challenge for leaders. Leaders must make decisions about what to cut, who to cut, what to keep, and how fast it all must happen. This module focuses on the common mistakes, management styles of successful turnaround leaders, and action plans that can serve as the starting point for a leader tasked with managing a turnaround. Other topics include:

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

Module 3: Crisis   Building on the turnaround module, here we examine how the added elements of restricted time and lack of information combine to create unique challenges for companies in crisis situations. However, unlike a turnaround, a crisis is a catastrophic event, or a series of seemingly small events, that produce a situation that often surprises leadership, even though it could have been predicted with close observation of the internal and external environments. Unfortunately, most organizations are not designed to prevent or manage crises. It’s not a question of if a crisis will happen, but when, and what kind. Other topics include:

  • Examining tradeoffs between taking swift action and the risk of acting with an untested approach.
  • The challenge of leading in situations where confusion and chaos often exist.

Module 4: Global Expansion and Scaling   Expansion is inherently risky to an incumbent organization’s existing architecture. Scaling a business, particularly into new geographical markets or product categories, involves addressing cultural, administrative, 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. Other topics include:

  • Establishing systems and integrated structures across growing geographic footprints, while simultaneously allowing for local innovation and preferences.
  • Developing an organizational architecture that supports the expansion into new product-classes and market categories.
  • Maintaining an organization’s culture and values while attempting to professionalize and create formal systems and structures. 

Module 5: 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.

Module 6: 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 career transitions that students will face in the next 5-10 years.

Format of Class Discussions

Cases, supplemental readings, and guests will form the basis of class discussion. Because LEAP is focused primarily on action, each session will devote time to dissecting a series of “micro-moments” within the case. Students will design a set of actions to address a various challenges. Many of the classes will also feature a protagonist or key team member in the classroom so students 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 &mdash a case taught in the actual business environment to provide students with greater context to the business challenges outside the classroom.
  • Some classes will have a non-case protagonists in attendance to share a practitioner's perspective on the case being discussed.
  • Failure presentations given by select students will highlight lessons learned from early career experiences, learning from failure, and the value of applying the course’s learning objectives in the real world.
  • An alumni panel will include students 3-4 years out of HBS. These alums will talk about the challenges they faced post-HBS after reentering the workplace.

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, discuss 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 10% 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 40% of the grade. It will be scheduled during the exam period following the last day of class.