by: Issues: March / April 2010. Categories: Leadership.

Call it unconventional or unorthodox, but Creative Execution – which can be all of these things – is designed to differentiate the company sharply and take it to previously unattainable heights. Leaders will understand why and how after they’ve read this article.

Fire your imagination and travel back to another time, more than 200 years ago. The year is 1805 and almost all of Europe lies within Napoleon Bonaparte’s grasp .Only one nation stands in his way of achieving total European domination: England. With 200,000 crack troops assembled in northern France, the Emperor is counting on Admiral Villeneuve to join forces with the Spanish and secure the Straits of Dover for the force that will invade England. Surveying the scene, the Emperor says, “Let us be masters of the Straits for six hours and we shall be masters of the world.”

Standing in the way of Napoleon’s grandiose scheme is the Royal Navy’s most capable admiral, Horatio Nelson, who had already decimated the French fleet that escorted Napoleon’s army to Egypt in 1798, and pursued the French fleet from North Africa to the West Indies and back. Admiral Villeneuve is well aware of Nelson’s prowess. Although his fleet bristles with 33 ships of the line, including the first-rate Spanish ship Santissima Trinidad, the world’s largest warship with 130 guns, Villeneuve knows that Nelson’s 27 men-of-war are in peak fighting condition.

When Nelson finally catches Villeneuve off Cape Trafalgar the morning of October 21, 1805, he achieves a monumental victory. The English sink or capture18 French ships, with over 14,000 French and Spanish killed in action, ten times more than the English. Taken prisoner aboard his flagship, Villeneuve commits suicide a few days after the battle. Napoleon’s dreams of European hegemony are shattered in one fell swoop.

Nelson’s touch

How did Nelson achieve such an overwhelming victory? The answer is that Nelson mastered what I call Creative Execution – the ability to execute a strategy so well conceived, understood and embraced by all that it almost guarantees a successful outcome, even against the odds. Nelson’s captains knew that they were going to win before the battle even started. They called their approach, quite simply, the Nelson Touch.

The Nelson Touch was anything but gentle. Nelson sought to not just defeat the Combined Fleet but to crush it. Instead of the traditional “line of battle,” in which two parallel lines of warships pounded each other from a safe distance – which led to long, inconclusive battles – Nelson decided to break through the enemy line at a 90-degree angle and attack individual ships from close quarters. His plan would ensure that the English, who could load and fire their guns almost twice as fast as the French and Spanish, could sink or disable enemy ships on a much larger scale than a long-range shoot out would allow. At Trafalgar, Nelson divided his fleet into two lines, one led by himself on the Victory, and the other led by Admiral Collingwood aboard the Royal Sovereign. Both lines cut through the center of the French and Spanish combined fleet and engaged in close-quarter action against the enemy.

Fig 1. Nelson’s Battle Plan at Trafalgar

I’ve mapped Nelson’s Touch against the five key ingredients of the Creative Execution formula I developed to break down the winning strategies of great leaders in history and business. By mastering these five ingredients, leaders will learn how to construct a Creative Execution formula that differentiates their organization and vastly increases their ability to achieve extraordinary results against the odds.

Five ingredients of Creative Execution

  1. A Unique Strategy understood and accepted by everyone. The first ingredient of Creative Execution –indeed of all execution- is a unique, compelling strategy. Nelson’s choice of strategy and tactics – to force a decisive battle with the Combined Fleet, approach the enemy line at a right angle and use superior firepower to overwhelm each ship in close-quarter combat – was both visionary and compelling. Nelson invited different ships’ captains to his cabin every night to discuss and refine his strategy, and drilled his ships every day to ensure that his crews maintained the gunnery accuracy that was the key to success. The fleet’s unique strategy of breaking through the enemy line and its competitive advantage in gunnery accuracy provided the double hammer blow that splintered the French and Spanish Combined Fleet.
  2. Candid Dialogue. The openness with which Nelson dealt with his peers and superiors was a hallmark of his personality. He fervently promoted his strategy within the Admiralty, shared it openly with his crew, and encouraged his captains to debate his ideas. Nelson understood that if he was to achieve the tactical breakthrough he was seeking, he would need to lay down the Royal Navy’s tradition of silent disagreement, and encourage his captains to take the initiative and break established norms.
  3. Clear Roles and Accountabilities. Once he shared his strategy with his captains, Nelson had the document published for all, so it was clear who was responsible for what. The fleet would be divided into two attacking forces that would slice through the French and Spanish center – with clear instructions for each attacking line. Nelson even sent out a terse reminder: “In case signals can neither be seen nor understood, a captain can do no wrong by placing his ship alongside an enemy.” First lieutenants were told how to press the attack should their captain be killed in action.
  4. Bold Action. Nelson had demonstrated his willingness to take bold action before Trafalgar. At the Battle of the Nile in 1798, he annihilated a French fleet in a night action when no other fleet had previously fought at night. His reputation for decisive action was so great after the Battle of the Nile that Admiral Villeneuve “sensed he was fighting not just an enormously gifted and bold opponent but an entire institution built on excellence and precision, overloading the odds from the start.”1 Upon seeing Nelson’s attack formation, the Spanish Admiral exclaimed “We are doomed!” Even though the French and Spanish ships had the opportunity to fire the first shots while the English fleet slowly made its way towards them, Nelson boldly sailed his ships right through the center of the enemy line.
  5. Visible Leadership. Only by being visible during the skirmishes that occur throughout execution can leaders unleash people’s creative powers. At Trafalgar, Nelson refused to remove his decorations or cover his Admiral’s uniform. He was convinced that his presence on the deck of the Victory would encourage his sailors to fight harder. Half way through the battle, a French sharpshooter spotted Nelson in his uniform and shot him. Nelson died after been taken below decks – and became an instant hero.

Creative Execution Definitions and Examples:

Compelling Strategy. The first ingredient of successful execution is a unique and compelling strategy that clearly outlines what you will do – or won’t do – in order to achieve outstanding results.
  • Nelson’s strategy for breaking through the enemy fleet’s line at Trafalgar
  • Google’s decision to focus on Internet search, instead of content
  • Four Seasons’ approach to building mid-size hotels
  • Toyota’s efforts to meet customer needs in every market
Candid Dialogue. Openness to other people’s ideas, honest debate, disagreements and resolution is critical to effective teamwork and execution. Creating a culture of candor improves employee engagement and drives innovation.
  • Nelson’s encouragement of “creative disobedience”
  • Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s annual letter to Google shareholders
  • Toyota employees make on average 600,000 suggestions for improving the company or manufacturing processes each year
Clear Roles & Accountabilities. Managers and employees need to understand how their individual roles and accountabilities connect to the strategy. Clear roles drive expectations and cement people’s commitment to specific actions.
  • Thomas Cook,’s CEO made each of his direct reports the CEO of a strategic initiative
  • Each Toyota employee is empowered to pull an andon cord that stops the entire production line
  • Each captain in Nelson’s fleet knew what to do in case the flagship couldn’t send proper signals
Bold Action. Bold action generates incredible momentum. It firmly propels the organization toward its new direction, and provides the first tangible taste of how the strategy will be deployed.
  • General Schwarzkopf’s famous “left hook” in Desert Storm
  • Google is in the process of digitizing the content of all the libraries in the world
  • Toyota’s early investment in hybrid technology
Visible Leadership. Visible leadership of the organization’s senior leaders is necessary to maintain a common focus, keep track of execution milestones, and create a positive culture of learning, courage and perseverance.
  • Nelson’s insistence that he should wear his Admiral’s uniform at Trafalgar
  • Akio Toyoda describes himself as the “owner-chef” at Toyota
  • COO Katie Taylor visits up to 30 Four Seasons hotels every year

Creative Execution marches east

By the middle of the 20th century, Creative Execution ceased to be used exclusively the military. Thanks to revolutions in technology, capital, talent and global development, Creative Execution migrated from its Western founders to Japan, China, India and the Middle East. If you were among the one billion people watching the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremonies in Beijing, where over 10,000 performers put on a show that took seven years to put together, you’re well aware of that fact. As well, Large-scale innovation, which the United States demonstrated through unique feats such as the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and the race to the Moon in the 1960s, is just as vibrant in South Korea and BRIC countries as it is in New York and Silicon Valley.

Consider these two examples:

  • Over 70 percent of Boeing’s highly touted 787 Dreamliner, a carbon-composite aircraft that took its maiden flight in December 2009, is designed and manufactured in China, Russia and India. Not only are Chinese workers bending sheet metal for the Dreamliner, but Chinese and Indian designers are putting together the specs for the aircraft.Likewise, in 2008, European aircraft maker Airbus opened its first plant outside Europe in China – where it now employs 600 workers to assemble the popular A320 airplane. And so China is no longer just buying Boeing and Airbus’s planes – which is what it did in the 1980s and 1990s – it is actually learning how to design, manufacture and assemble the planes. This significant shift will likely see China form its own aircraft industry in the near future.
  • In the United Arab Emirates of Abu Dhabi, a T-shaped island with barely one million inhabitants, engineers are building a new, high-tech, zero-carbon emission city called Masdar, or the source in Arabic. Masdar will rely exclusively on solar and renewable energy sources to power 50,000 houses and 1,500 businesses. To keep the city cool and minimize energy requirements, Masdar will be walled, and its streets will be narrow and shaded. The city will be completed in 2016, at a cost of roughly $22 billion.With $1 trillion at its disposal from oil revenues managed through the Abu Dhabi Sovereign Wealth Fund, (which recently bought a 15 percent stake in London’s Gatwick Airport, and a 10 percent stake in Hyatt Hotels), Abu Dhabi’s grandiose plans aren’t restricted to Masdar. In 2009, the Emirate signed a $1.6 billion agreement with the French national museums to build a branch of the Louvre on the island of Saadiyat, as part of a $27 billion development project. Renowned architect Frank Gehry is building a modern art museum there, while Japanese architect Tadao Ando is erecting a maritime museum and arch. In the next five years, the Creative Execution burst under way in Abu Dhabi will present us with another version of Dubai that, seemingly, grew out of nothing to become a world class megalopolis.

Google This

While Creative Execution is thriving in BRIC countries and the Middle East, it has not entirely vanished from the U.S. or Europe. Take Google, which since its inception has experienced ten years of double (and sometimes triple) digit growth. Back in October 2007, Google’s share price of $700 made it more valuable than mighty Microsoft, with a market cap of $220 billion. Google continues to push the boundaries of creative development, whether it’s through the stunning scenery of Google Mars or clever customization of advertising for its Gmail users. In 2009, while other tech companies were struggling, Google increased it revenues by 17 percent in the last quarter alone – adding another cool $1 billion to its top line.

Using the Creative Execution formula, we can map out Google’s rise from start-up to global leader in Internet search:

Unique Strategy: From the get-go, the unique appeal of co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s algorithm is what set Google apart from other Internet search engines. While attending Stanford University, Page and Brin designed a formula – called PageRank – that analyzes links to and from all the web sites on the Internet, and determines how important each web site is, based on the number of links that refer back to it. While early Internet providers like AOL and Netscape focused on email services and measured their success by keeping users inside a “walled garden,” Google kept its main page simple and let the logic of PageRank take users out of its site as quickly as possible.

What appeared at first blush to be a proposition for losing money on the Internet turned into a scalable gold mine. By sticking to their unique strategy and focusing on Internet search, rather than content, Page and Brin built a company that owns 60 percent of the global Internet search market, and has emerged as “the most formidable challenger that Microsoft has ever faced.”2

Candid Dialogue: Google’s culture of candid dialogue is rooted in the friendship between Page and Brin, who met on Stanford’s campus in the summer of 1995. As Google’s own philosophy states, “Ideas are traded, tested and put into practice with an alacrity that can be dizzying. Meetings that would take hours elsewhere are frequently little more than a conversation in line for lunch and few walls separate those who write the code from those who write the checks.”

Since Google’s 2004 IPO, Brin and Page have upheld their pledge to take turns writing a direct, open letter to shareholders at the beginning of every year, where they explain the company’s direction. Their original IPO letter, inspired by Warren Buffet’s essays, made it clear to all potential shareholders that the company would not attempt to “smooth out” its quarterly results, a common practice among publicly traded companies. This candor and straight talk from Page and Brin, as well as their commitment to keeping PageRank safe from the influence of advertisers, remains fundamental to Google’s success.

Clear Roles and Accountabilities: When Eric Schmidt joined Google as CEO in 2001, he brought the business experience that Google needed to balance the creative energy and technical genius that Page and Brin brought to the table. The three have been collaborating for so long that, as Brin and Page acknowledge, “decisions are often made by one of us, with the others being briefed later… we can often predict differences of opinion among the three of us.”3 In the early days of Google, Page and Brin were so close that they actually shared a rectangular work station at the Googleplex, Google’s head office in Mountain View, California.

Within the company itself, Google employees feel an unusual sense of shared direction and accountability. Part of this operating philosophy is reflected in Google’s structure, which consists of teams without the usual layers of middle management. Schmidt, Page and Brin realize that to attract and keep the world’s best computer scientists and innovators, they need to keep the structure flat and provide their engineers with space to think creatively. The enduring rule that engineers must spend 20 percent of their time pursuing their own independent projects is a unique example of Google’s commitment to Creative Execution.

Bold Action: From the get-go, Google’s founders never shied away from taking bold, decisive action to move the company forward. Page and Brin’s first big decision was to download the entire Internet on Google’s computers, and use its web crawler to unleash the PageRank algorithm on each page. Google takes a bold approach to new product development, often releasing beta versions of its technology to let users provide critical feedback.

The idea of digitizing every single book in the world, whether it’s written in English, French or Urdu seems outrageous. Yet that’s exactly what Google set out to do in 2002, boldly ignoring the possibility of a legal quagmire which publishers threw up as soon as the University of Michigan announced its intention to be the pilot site. Google took a similar bold step with its decision to ignore the public backlash about its Gmail product, correctly foreseeing that it could maintain user confidentiality and trust even if it allowed its algorithm to “read” people’s mail and display corresponding ads next to their text.

Visible Leadership: From their humble beginnings in a Palo Alto garage to ringing the bell at the New York Exchange in 2004, the day of Google’s IPO, Page and Brin have displayed the kind of visible leadership of which Admiral Nelson would approve. The pair successfully stood up to the SEC and Wall Street investment firms when they set the rules for their IPO, insisting that the initial share price be set at a fairly high $85.00, and cutting investment firms’ traditional fees by fifty percent. Google’s decision to lift the censorship of its Chinese website, or leave China altogether, is another example of the founders’ commitment to living up to their unique motto, Do No Evil.

Page and Brin aren’t the only visible Google executives. Take Marissa Mayer, who joined the company as employee number 20. Mayer remains an icon for Google, not only because she was the company’s first female engineer, but because of her huge impact on the look and feel of Google’s products, which she edits for style, color and nonsense-free content. The New York Times described Mayer as “the rare executive who has become – at least in the sometimes cloistered world of computer geeks – a celebrity.”4 By hiring talented executives like Mayer and Eric Schmidt, Page and Brin have created a diversified, highly capable leadership team at Google.

Making Creative Execution work for you

You may think that Creative Execution worked for Nelson and for Google, but that it may not work for you because you’re not an Admiral, CEO or a Middle East oil tycoon. But Creative Execution can help anyone achieve great results against the odds, in any organization. To unleash Creative Execution in your organization, you need to:

  1. Evaluate your strategy.Is your existing strategy so unique and compelling that it gets you and other people excited, just like the Nelson Touch? Does it identify an opportunity just as striking as the one Page and Brin discovered when they decided to focus on Internet search, when all their competitors were focused on serving up proprietary content?As a consultant, I worked with the senior leaders of companies like Thomas Cook in North America and Bank of Montreal to evaluate whether executives understood, accepted and fully embraced their organization’s direction. We found that, in typical organizations, there were serious disconnects between executives’ interpretation of the strategy and the levels of acceptance across the organization. This was usually the result of several tendencies:
    • Relying excessively on external advisers, consultants and industry experts to design strategy. Thomas Cook hired a strategy consulting firm to create a clever new direction, but had to work much harder than it had anticipated to get its people and leadership team on board. Lesson learned? Invest your team’s time in thinking through and shaping your strategy. Don’t present them with a fait accompli
    • Staying “within the boundaries” of what others are doing. Page, Brin and Nelson created their own strategic vision, which contradicted the established principles of naval warfare and the Internet business. Don’t be afraid to seek out contrarian views and defy the logic that’s prevalent in your industry.
    • Assuming that everyone is on board. That’s rarely the case at the beginning of any significant change initiative. The leader’s role is to continually promote, explain, and hear the voices of people charged with execution.
    • Not being clear about who’s in charge. At Thomas Cook Financial Services, the CEO insisted that each of his direct reports be the owner of a strategic initiative. This created clear roles and accountabilities for making change happen.
  2. Encourage bold thinking.The second key to making Creative Execution work is to ensure that your compelling strategy doesn’t become a straightjacket but rather an empowering tool. As a Creative Execution leader, you must walk a fine line between creating a bold direction and getting people energized so that they take ownership of the strategy, and apply their creative thinking to its successful execution.The biggest mistake leaders make is to assume that once they have conceived a strategy, execution is a mundane task which barely deserves their attention. Creative Execution leaders use strategy as a stepping stone to unleash the bold thinking and creativity of everyone on their team. They make execution – not strategy – the focus of their work. They don’t insist that everyone blindly follow the strategy, but encourage what Admiral Nelson called “creative disobedience,” namely using critical thinking skills to make decisions and solve problems as they emerge. Nelson took that thinking one step further when he directly disobeyed an order from his boss early in his career, and charged into an enemy fleet instead of withdrawing. Nelson later claimed that he never saw the signal to withdraw, even though his flag officer had clearly drawn his attention to it.By giving your people carte blanche to think and act boldly, you will:
    1. Send the message that you care deeply about execution.
    2. Build up trust and collaboration.
    3. Unleash people’s creative skills and energy.
    4. Learn to push your organization’s boundaries.
  3. Lead from the Front.Leading from the front, in warfare or business, is what keeps people focused on their tasks, and the centerpiece of Creative Execution. Even in the age of Twitter and GPS, there’s no substitute for a leader, whether a CEO or product manager, who spends time in the trenches with the people who deal directly with customers and feel first-hand the impact of his or her decisions.Kathleen Taylor, COO of Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, visits up to 30 hotels each year from Doha to Shanghai. At that rate, she manages to see every Four Seasons property at least once every three years. Not only does Katie meet with employees and all department heads (a total of 30 to 40 people in each hotel), but she also spends private time with each general manager and their family to show her appreciation for their commitment to the company. She’s leading from the front, even in places like the Middle East where you might not expect a woman to be front and center. Just like Katie, your job as a Creative Execution leader is to be visible in order to personally infuse your strategy and direction with meaning.

The Creative Execution challenge

I’ve delved into the lives and achievements of extraordinary leaders and companies in the process of writing about Creative Execution. Each situation led to the execution of an uncommon strategy, with remarkable results. The common thread in each case was a clearly articulated formula that provided a watertight link between strategy and execution. Shaping, applying and evolving that unique formula is the fundamental function of leadership.

Marcel Proust wrote that “The voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Having new eyes will help you design a Creative Execution formula that’s unique to you, and lets you to tap into the creative potential of your organization. That’s the challenge which Nelson and Google so brilliantly embraced, and which can be your key to achieving great results against the odds.

Sidebar 1: The Creative Execution Loop

Sidebar 2: Are you a Creative Execution Leader?

Leaders who Undermine Creative Execution…

  • Treat strategy development as an exclusive exercise for people at the top of the organization.
  • Believe that execution will take place because they will insist on it, or because the strategy itself is too brilliant to fail.
  • Want everyone to follow the plan, regardless of circumstances.
  • View even small failures as unbearable.
  • Rely on formal hierarchy and communications to engage people and make things happen.

Leaders Who Foster Creative Execution…

  • Treat strategy development as an opportunity to engage their people in rethinking the future.
  • Believe that execution will take place because they fervently encourage candid dialogue about the strategy and what it means.
  • Are comfortable with “creative disobedience”
  • Personally lead and model the behaviors needed to make change happen.
  • View mistakes and failures as part of the growth process.
  • Stay visible and approachable, especially in times of doubt or crisis.

  1. To Rule the Waves, by Arthur Herman, HarperCollins, 2004, p. 384.
  2. Randall Stross, Planet Google, p. 8
  3. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, “An Owner”s Manual for Google Shareholders”, 2004
  4. New York Times, Sunday March 11 2009, B1