People management skills are crucial for successful implementation. When managing people in strategy execution, soft skills are as important as hard skills if not more important. A manager or executive with implementation responsibilities must be both task and people oriented. Strategy execution is not just about task performance. In the end, are employees the ones who have to make the strategy a success. A key task of leaders and managers is to mobilize their subordinates to successfully execute the strategy. This requires considerable people skills.


A people-manager listens, provides encouragement and support, coaching and counseling, develops social relations with and between subordinates, makes them feel proud and celebrates social activities during a strategy implementation effort. People management or relationship-oriented management has three main aspects:

  • Coaching and counseling.
  • Giving personal attention.
  • Making people feel proud and important.


A new strategy often involves new tasks and activities that require new skills and behaviors of employees. Managers need good people skills to motivate and empower their employees to successfully the perform the new tasks and activities. As each person is different, executives and managers need insight in the motivations, attitudes and behaviors of their subordinates. Each person must often be treated differently to compel them to execute the strategy.

Not only is it important to motivate individuals to execute the strategy but groups as well. Strategy execution is by definition a group effort that involves the execution of activities that cross the boundaries of teams and organizational units. Executives and managers must have the skills to forge effective teams and achieve effective cooperation between teams and departments. Clearly, executives and managers need considerable people management skills to successfully execute the strategy.


A first aspect of people management is coaching and counseling employees during the strategy implementation effort. A new strategy often requires a change in the skills, behaviors and knowledge of people in the organization. One of the means of attaining these skills is through personal coaching. Employees are the ones who have execute the strategy and make it a success. To do this, employees have to internalize the new activities that are required to execute the strategy. Managers must guide and coach their employees but they have to perform the implementation tasks themselves. Organizational members are often quite capable of performing certain implementation tasks but need help doing it.

What is coaching? Coaching involves understanding what drives a person, helping build connections between that person’s work and the vision and strategy of the organization, providing timely feedback about that person’s performance and helping that person learn and grow on an ongoing basis (Valcour, 2016). To do this effectively, managers must have regular, preferably weekly, coaching conversations with the person about his or her development.

Coaching is crucial for effective managers. Recent research has found coaching to be the single most important managerial competency that distinguishes highly effective managers from average ones (Valcour, 2016). 70 percent of training and development happens on the job, not through formal training programs (ibid).


Coaching of managers and employees during a strategy implementation effort has several positive influences on implementation performance.

Coaching reduces resistance to change. Managers can reduce resistance to change by being facilitative and supportive to employees (Kotter and Schlesinger, 1979). This may involve giving employees time off after a demanding period and providing emotional support (ibid). Such an approach is most helpful when organizational members are fearful or anxious, such as during an implementation effort that involves organizational change.

Coaching reduces work stress. Coaching and counseling is effective when the work at hand is very demanding and stressful. As a strategy implementation effort often involves change and uncertainty organizational members may become stressed. Under such circumstances, management need to extensively coach and counsel organizational members to help them deal with stressful situations. When employees are coached they feel supported by their manager and organization. This increases their commitment to their work and the organization, which in turn enhances their performance.

Mentoring improves the quality of the strategy and its execution. Implementing organizations should have mentors, who act primarily as counselors and conciliators. The task of these mentors is to challenge, probe and question the findings of the implementation team, but must never dictate answers nor lead the team to their own favorite solutions. Such mentorship creates a healthy environment in which the strategy and its execution are discussed in an open and constructive way. This promotes the ownership of the strategy and its execution as well.

Coaching enhances employee learning. Organizational members eventually have to internalize the new activities, which are required to execute the strategy. If management or consultants make the decisions or perform tasks for employees, they will not learn to do it themselves. This way, organizational members remain dependent on the managers and consultants, requiring more supervision and involvement from them. Instead of providing solutions, a coach asks questions that helps their counterparts find solutions themselves. This allows employees to learn the most from any given challenge.

Coaching may overcome employee passiveness. Coaching and counseling can be very effective for improving the implementation performance of passive organizational members. Organizational members may be passive and reluctant to take initiative or participate in decision-making related to the implementation effort. By showing interest, coming down to the level of employees, and trying to get them on a higher level, this passiveness may be slowly overcome.

Coaching builds confidence of employees. By coaching and counseling organizational members, they can become more confident of their abilities and perform better. When people are intensively coached, they can do a lot more than they originally think. As noted previously, organizational members are often able to perform their implementation tasks, but often think that they are not able to do it because they have low self-confidence. An example was a lower-level employee who had to take a computer course. She was very reluctant to take the course and called in sick each time. However, when she started the course and using the computer more and was coached, she gradually became very knowledgeable about it and really liked it and become a mentor herself later on.

Coaching increases motivation of employees. Coaching and mentoring foster self-reliance and self-worth, which are important to keep the motivation of employees high (Corkindale, 2010). Research has shown that the most powerful motivator for people is being able to make progress in their work (Amabile and Kramer, 2007). Achieving or even making progress toward a goal, task or assignment gives employees great pleasure (ibid). One of the most important tasks for managers is therefore to enable progress. Managers can increase the motivation of employees by giving employees increasingly challenging tasks and assignment and helping them through coaching. When employees are motivated to do a strategy execution task, they tend to perform well at that task.

Many organizations lack effective coaching. Despite its perceived importance, coaching and counseling does not happen often within organizations. In most organizations, coaching is not something that managers are formally expected to do (Valcour, 2014). Many managers do not see coaching as an important part of their role. Managers often think they do not have the time for it or lack the skill. Coaching and counseling tends to be time consuming for managers and requires considerable social skills, which managers do not always have. However, when employees are not coached their growth is hindered, as is their commitment to their organization and their retention. Clearly, this has a strong influence on the ability of an organization to execute its strategy.

Give managers time to coach. Historically, managers passed on skills, knowledge and insights to subordinates through coaching and mentoring (Ferrazzi, 2015). The medieval master-apprentice relationship is a good example of this. In current times, this role of managers has been reduced. Managers are increasingly overburdened with responsibilities and have little time for coaching and mentoring. Organizations must support and reward managers to perform this crucial role (Ferrazzi, 2015).


A second aspect of people-management is to develop and maintain personal relationships with subordinates. An important part of being an effective leader or manager is to develop good relationships with their subordinates. They are the ones who have to execute the strategy and make it a success. Developing good relationships can be done by giving personal attention to employees and building strong social ties with them. An effective way to build and maintain close personal relationships is to give considerable personal attention to organizational members, get to know them and sincerely appreciate them. An individual approach of organizational members has a positive influence on strategy implementation performance because of the following reasons.

Each person is unique. Each employee is a unique person with different abilities, interests, goals and ways of learning. Managers must really know their employees and know how to approach and motivate them to successfully execute their strategy execution tasks and activities. What motivates one person may not motivate another one.

Employees value personal relationships with superiors. My research suggests that organizational members have a need to develop and maintain close and personal relationships with their managers and other organizational members. This is especially important during a strategy execution effort, which is often perceived as a period of uncertainty and stress.

Personal relationships facilitate performance feedback. Organizational members can sometimes take things personally and have difficulty dealing with criticism, especially when an organization has a culture of fear or in cultures in which face is important. Hence, a manager has to sense whether to approach an employee in a direct or indirect way to prompt an employee to perform certain tasks. A manager should have a feeling for how his employees are and how to best deliver performance feedback. This allows management to adjust the behavior of organizational members during an implementation effort in a non-confrontational way.

Personal relationships improve communication and cooperation. When a manager has a close and personal relationship with his or her subordinates, he or she can decipher the indirect way of communicating of his subordinates. Indirect communication is part of the culture of many organizations. In many organizations there is a ‘wall of friendliness’. This refers to situations when organizational members are afraid to say no or voice divergent opinions to colleagues and especially to persons higher in hierarchy. This phenomenon is more pronounced in organizational cultures with a high power distance. This is especially important in countries outside North America and Western Europe, such as Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East. One manager argued that he could ascertain whether a subordinate would really perform a task, by the way he said ‘yes’ or the way he walks out the door.

Personal relationships allow managers to stay in touch with work floor. There is often a distance between management and employees which has negative influence on the level of cooperation during a strategy execution effort. This distance can be reduced by talking to employees often and giving them information about the strategy and its execution. This way, employees may feel that management is involved with them, takes them serious and listens to them. This increases the trust between managers and employees improving the level of cooperation between them.

Avoid too close personal relationships with subordinates. Many managers fall in to the trap of building too close personal relationships with subordinates. This is often because a need to be liked. Such relationships tend to make it more difficult to take tough decisions that are sometimes needed when executing a strategy. It can also hinder giving critical but helpful feedback, reducing the effectiveness of a manager (Hill and Lineback, 2011).

Beware of favoritism. On the other hand, managers need to beware that their close personal relationships do not result in favoritism. Favoritism in the workplace is a widespread practice. A survey found that 92% of senior business executives have seen favoritism at play in employee promotions, including at their own companies. A preferential treatment of one person over another person can result in a reluctance to confront poorly performing employees. Furthermore, the position of a manager can be undermined when employees perceive that some employees are treated better than others. When this happens a manager becomes less credible and subordinates are less likely to follow such a person. Being perceived as fair is one of the most important traits of a manager.

Favoritism reduces group performance. When employees are not treated equally this can create resentment and separation that can demotivate team members and reduce team unity. When critical and high profile assignments are not assigned to best person for the job, it’s not likely to be as successfully executed as it could be. When the best persons perceive that they do not get challenging assignments because of favoritism they are likely to leave the department or the organization, as we saw earlier. Such favoritism can sabotage a high performance work culture.


A third part of people management is to make employees feel proud about themselves, their work and their organization, and to make them feel that they are important for the successful implementation of the strategy. This has a positive influence on their level of self-confidence, increasing the motivation of organizational members, which in turn has a positive influence on their strategy execution performance. There are several ways to increase the feelings of pride and importance of organizational members.

Make your people feel valued. A key aspect of making people proud is to make them feel valued. Managers can do this by giving them positive feedback, recognition, and rewards such as small gifts or flexible working hours (Corkindale, 2010). Allowing working from home is another arrangement that makes employees feel valued and is often highly effective. When people feel valued, they will be loyal and supportive of their manager and the organization and thus its strategy.

Communicate to employees that their work is important. Leaders and managers can build the motivation of employees and their commitment to the organization and its strategy by making them understand that work they do is important to the organization and the strategy execution effort, even if it is a simple job. This can be done by explaining to them how their work contributes to the work of other team members, the department and organization as whole. This way, organizational members get the feeling that their job really contributes to the execution effort and the organization. Most employees have a need to contribute and value a job that has meaning.

Explain the benefits of work to customers and society. Explain to organizational members that the services they provide have a benefit to society. When organizational members hold the view that the services or products they provide have a benefit to society, they often become proud of their work. Having a reason or purpose for doing one’s job beyond financial rewards is important for people. These feelings of purpose are the result of worthwhile contributions to something or someone other than oneself. ‘Doing ‘good’ to others is a human need and a very powerful motivation for people (Guillen and González, 2001). It refers to the human fulfillment of others and to service for the common good. If the possibility of looking out for the good of others is not present, this may result in disinterested and unmotivated organizational members. The feeling of personal importance that results from being valuable to the organization has a positive influence on the organizational commitment and the performance of people, which also improves their strategy execution performance.

Communicate the appreciation of customers and stakeholders. Leaders and managers can make employees proud and motivate them by communicating the appreciation of clients and others inside and outside of the organization to them. Organizational members may become even more proud and motivated when they have the feeling that their work is appreciated by others.

Convey that everyone is important to the organization. Making all organizational members feel important to the organization is another very good practice to increase feelings of pride of employees. Yet it is crucial that this is demonstrated and not just espoused by executives and managers. Feelings of pride and importance can be increased when employees feel that everyone in the organization is equally important. This can be done by involving employees in decision-making, profit sharing, having stories and pictures of employees of the months in the annual report and really listening to employees and giving them respect. The aim is to make employees proud about themselves. This can best be done by showing it instead of saying it.


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Dr. Arnoud van der Maas is a strategy consultant and author in Strategy Execution. Received a PhD in Strategy from Rotterdam School of Management – one of the top business schools in Europe. He is owner of Strataegos Consulting – a strategy consultancy specialized in strategy execution. His passion is to empower organizations to better develop and execute their strategy.