According to Reputation Notebook, Mark Shadle’s blog on corporate public relations, research from The Conference Board showed that “execution” is the top concern of US CEO’s. “This year’s overall top challenge shows that CEOs from around the world are realizing that strong execution is a critical factor in driving profits and revenues,” says Jonathan Spector, President and CEO of The Conference Board. “These executives are also becoming increasingly aware of the crucial role that people play in growing their companies.”

The Conference Board’s study distinguished “Excellence in Execution” from “Consistent execution of strategy by top management” (See statistics below). This made me pause to consider the difference between these concerns in the mind of a CEO.

Conference Board Research on CEO Concerns

(% citing challenge as of “greatest concern”)

1. Sustained & steady top-line growth 41.3%

2. Excellence in execution 39.6%

3. Consistent execution of strategy by top management 38.5%

4. Profit growth 29.9%

5. Customer loyalty/retention 25.6%

6. Finding managerial talent 20.9%

7. Top management succession 20.1%

8. Corporate reputation 19.7%

9. Stimulating innovation/creativity 19.2%

10. Speed, flexibility, adaptability to change 18.2%

The distinction between “Excellence in Execution” and “Consistent execution by top management” strikes me because it shows that CEO’s understand that their challenges include at least two components: process discipline and alignment. The former takes years to put in place. The absence of the latter takes seconds to undermine the former. Good alignment at the top promotes the development and maintenance of good operational processes. Bad alignment results in confusion and leads people to bypass operational processes.

For CEO’s of larger companies, the issue of execution must feel like trying to drive a car with a 10 second delay between turning the wheel and the car’s response. Only the delay is more like weeks or months and the car is more like an aircraft carrier and the steering wheel is really a network of conversations. No wonder CEO’s worry about execution!

Senior leaders can get misaligned when they don’t fully comprehend the overall strategy and what it requires from the various functions and departments of a company. This is easier to have happen than one might think. Large corporations are very complex and strategies can often be expressed in very general terms. The processes for operationalizing a strategy can be quite fragmented and misalignment can easily creep into the details when functional heads don’t have the time, or don’t feel they have the standing to question each other’s plans.

Senior leaders can also get misaligned when they pursue self-centered tactics that place higher priority on functional goals than on the organization’s as a whole. Senior management teams face two types of competition: market and spotlight. Market competition effects them all, and their collective response to market competition can determine their compensation and their reputations quite directly. Spotlight competition is the internal competition for glory, promotion an