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Execution Excellence

How HR Can Drive Impact Through Execution Excellence

By Marna van der Merwe, Erik van Vulpen

In brief

  • In this article, we focus on the important role of HR in executing business strategy, underscoring its strategic contributions to overcoming common organizational challenges.
  • We discusses three major obstacles companies encounter in strategy implementation—translating strategy into tangible action, execution is a people problem and how the success of a strategy requires constant adjustment—and how HR can address these to drive impactful execution.
  • The piece redefines HR’s function from being primarily operational to becoming a core strategic player that is critical in setting and executing business strategies, and how HR can drive impact in the organization at various levels, through strategy process, people, and their own skill set (self.
  • Expanding upon the core competencies within the T-shaped HR Competency Model, we explain the concept of Execution Excellence, and how HR professionals can master seven behaviors to foster effective strategy execution across the organization.

For the last decade, HR has focused on elevating its strategic impact in response to changing organizational demands. In fact, organizations that actively involve HR in the strategy process encounter less people and financial risks associated with high turnover, inadequate resourcing and diminished productivity. 

But this requires relieving HR’s operational or administrative burden to play an active role in setting strategy and strategy execution.

In this article, we argue that HR’s biggest impact is how it enables the organization to execute its strategy and explain how the HR function can capitalize on this role. Through this lens, we redefine HR’s role as a strategic contributor essential for business success.

Common challenges in strategy execution

To become a strategic partner, HR must help the organization execute its strategy and realize its goals. As a department that enables the organization to operate, HR has a critical role to play in strategy execution. 

To understand this role, it’s important to consider three typical obstacles organizations face in delivering impact through strategy and how HR can remove these.

Infographic depicting the 3 common obstacles HR faces in Strategy Execution

Obstacle 1: Translating strategy into tangible action

Getting people to execute a plan is much more difficult than devising a smart strategy. In the words of John Doerr, one of the pioneers of OKR goal setting: “Ideas are cheap, execution is everything”.

Research by Bain found that up to 40% of strategy value is lost in poor execution. CEOs across 400 organizations of various sizes and maturity list strategy execution as one of their top challenges; specifically the failure to implement strategy plans.

Creating a strategy is often the responsibility of the core executive team that has the business acumen and know-how to shape the future. However, strategy execution relies on interpreting and translating strategy and then getting it done. This is enabled through timely decision-making, which shifts the dial in the right direction. It relies on several people doing the right things aligned to the defined direction. 

Strategic alignment is key to ensuring that strategy is translated into tangible action plans, aligned to a common goal. 

Obstacle 2: Execution is a people problem

The biggest challenge in strategy execution is aligning everyone’s efforts and helping them accomplish the organization’s most important work, according to an HBR article titled ‘Execution is a People Problem, not a Strategy Problem’.

This requires belief in a shared vision, understanding the organization’s goals, and motivation to contribute to these. It also requires the right skills and capabilities to deliver on this vision. Strategy execution fails when employees do not feel a sense of ownership in their contribution to the strategy or when efforts and skill are misaligned. 

On an organizational level, the right people must be deployed at the right time at the right place. This is achieved through effective workforce allocation, offered growth opportunities that align with the organization’s long-term vision, and a culture that promotes performance and impact. 

Goal-setting keeps everyone accountable to deliver aligned to the strategy. It acts as a powerful motivator by showcasing individual contribution to overarching objectives.

Obstacle 3: Successful strategy execution requires constant adjustment

Too often, strategy execution only extends as far as defining a tactical execution plan. Successful strategy execution goes beyond a tactical plan – it relies on aligning and integrating resources, processes, and practices. When integrated seamlessly, strategy can turn into action, with all elements of the business working towards a shared goal.  But successful execution also requires ongoing agility and refinement.

This is where goal setting becomes crucial. Clear, measurable, and achievable goals provide a roadmap for execution. They act as guideposts, helping employees understand what needs to be done and how their efforts contribute to the larger strategic vision.

In an agile business environment, practices must be iterated, and goals must be adaptable. This means making decisions based on a variety of different data sources and a willingness to iterate and adjust plans as new information comes to light and new technologies and business models emerge. This flexibility to adjust where needed ensures successful strategy execution over time.

Agility ensures that goals are adapted and iterated in line with contextual realities and changes, without losing sight of the overarching strategy.

The 3 pillars of successful strategy execution

These challenges highlight three important pillars of successful strategy execution:

  1. Strategic alignment
  2. Goal-setting
  3. Agility.

HR as a strategic contributor to overcoming these challenges

While HR has made great strides in securing “a seat at the table”, there is still an opportunity to play a more active role in strategic planning and execution. In most organizations, strategy is still defined by the core leadership team and HR is only involved in strategy execution when it comes to defining the people strategy. 

To some extent, HR credibility has largely been built on its ability to monitor strategy execution. Practices such as performance management and strategic talent management ensure that adequate resources are in place to deliver on strategy. 

However, HR as a function is uniquely positioned to deliver an even greater impact earlier in the strategy process: 

  • The HR function is, by its nature, cross-functional and cross-collaborative. To deliver HR services and solutions, efforts have to be coordinated with many other functional areas such as finance, technology, marketing, and compliance. This cross-functional orientation and established stakeholder relationships are critical for broader strategy execution. 
  • HR is skilled at cascading strategy and facilitating goal-setting. As a business enablement function, HR strategy follows business strategy and is measured through aligned metrics. These mechanisms reflect one of the key requirements of successful strategy execution, which can be leveraged for business strategy execution.
  • HR is best positioned to mobilize and align people to execute strategy internally. This is done through strategically aligned practices but also through communication, the development of leaders, and driving a high-performance culture. As a business partner and people advocate, HR can directly influence and align people within the organization to deliver on strategy. 

Defining HR’s role in strategy execution

HR has a crucial role to play in strategy execution, which extends beyond just the CHRO accountability and contribution.

Based on the positioning of the function, the practices it influences, and the skills of HR practitioners, we believe HR can make an impact at three levels — through the strategy process, people, and their own skill set (self).  

1. Impact through the strategy process

The impact of HR in the strategy process is foremost realized through making strategic execution a people problem. This requires a deep understanding of the strategy, knowing the levers that help to realize the strategy, and prioritizing the actions that create the greatest impact.

Integrating and aligning HR practices to reflect the overarching business priorities is critical to strategy execution. This breaks down siloed execution and ensures cross-functional alignment towards the same goals. This includes performance management, talent management practices, and reward and recognition. Alignment makes strategy execution part of how work gets done in the organization, shaping a culture of execution. 

Strategic workforce planning and evidence-based, data-driven decision-making are key to ensuring the business has the right skills to deliver on strategy. Technology, data, and scenario planning expertise is critical for delivering impact through the function. Yet, these are the same capabilities that HR organizations often struggle with.

2. Impact through people

To achieve these outcomes, HR professionals must master how to deliver impact through others. This applies to individual contributors but specifically to HR leaders who are responsible for managing and leading teams and projects. This requires entrusting and enabling others to deliver impact. To do this effectively, we believe there are 7 behaviors to successfully master as an HR professional delivering impact through others. 

Delivering impact: 7 behaviors to master

Successfully mastering these seven behaviors will help HR professionals deliver impact through people.

Sets Direction

Fundamental for strategy, articulating vision and strategic objectives with a clear, adaptable roadmap.

Develops and Coaches

Prioritizes team development, enhancing skills and empowering ownership for agile strategy navigation.

Builds Trust

Bedrock for strategy, fostering collaboration, open communication, and risk-taking through consistency and transparency.

Leads with Empathy

Essential for effective strategy, cultivating a supportive environment and accommodating diverse work styles.

Manages Conflict

Vital for focus on goals, involves addressing conflicts and misalignments for productive collaboration.

Inspires and Motivates

Engages teams in adversity, fostering purpose and commitment for strategic alignment and execution


Crucial for informed decision-making, involving reflection and adaptability for effective leadership

Developing leadership competencies is frequently neglected within HR, disproportionately focusing on technical skills and expertise. As HR professionals, knowing how to deliver through others is critical for strategy execution. Whether this involves cross-functional collaboration, leading HR teams, or playing a role in aligning people towards the same goals, these competencies are critical for HR professionals to master. 

Table depicting the 7 behaviors HR should master to drive execution excellence

3. Impact through self

Finally, HR cannot drive execution excellence as a function when individual HR professionals don’t apply the same principles to their work. Whilst business acumen is critical for understanding the business context and commercial impact in strategy creation, execution excellence translates strategy into action.

The Execution Excellence competency focuses on the way HR delivers impact by getting things done. In our T-Shaped HR Competency Model, we define this through three broad dimensions. Each dimension specifies how strategy is executed through the individual.

  1. Action Orientation involves effectively planning and organizing activities to achieve specific goals and objectives, while also being accountable for the results. It encompasses the efficient use of resources, both personal and within an organization, to create meaningful outcomes. Additionally, it includes the capability of human resources (HR) professionals to adapt to changes and manage uncertainties that are common in their work environment.
  2. Problem-Solving involves the methods HR professionals use to approach issues and make decisions. It requires making sense of various information sources and effectively conveying the core idea. This also requires navigating contrasting viewpoints and finding a practical way forward. Lastly, it requires an awareness of the broader business context to interpret data and make informed and timely decisions. 
  1. Interpersonal Skills refer to how HR professionals engage with others to deliver impact. Building and maintaining relationships with stakeholders and fostering collaboration are critical skills to drive impact through others. Clear communication and persuasion are critical to ensure others are aligned and informed. Finally, genuine empathy and cultural awareness in these interactions are key to creating an inclusive and supportive atmosphere for others to deliver. 
AIHR's T Shaped  HR Competency Model illustrating the Execution Excellence Core Competency

Taking action

As organizations become increasingly complex and more fast-paced while facing technological and social shifts, effective strategy execution is more essential than ever. The question is no longer if HR has a role to play in strategic execution, but rather on how we can ensure our actions create strategic impact. 

As a partner to the business, HR has the unique opportunity to enable strategy execution through actions that lead to impact backed by sound decision-making. This requires a renewed focus on execution excellence as a core capability of the HR function.

How HR Can Drive Impact Through Execution Excellence

About the Authors

Marna van der MerweHR Subject Matter Expert
Dr. Marna van der Merwe is an Organizational Psychologist and Subject Matter Expert at AIHR. She has extensive experience in Human Resources, Organizational Effectiveness and Strategic Talent Management. She is a researcher, published author and regular conference speaker in the areas of talent management, experience design, as well as the changing nature of careers. Marna holds a PhD in Organizational Psychology, with a specific focus on talent management and careers in the future of work.
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Erik van Vulpen
Erik van Vulpen is the founder and Dean of AIHR. He is an expert in shaping modern HR practices by bringing technological innovations into the HR context. He receives global recognition as an HR thought leader and regularly speaks on topics like People Analytics, Digital HR, and the Future of Work.
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