Plan B

General David Petraeus, one of the great soldiers of our generation, posed an important question on going into Iraq in 2003: “Tell me how this ends”. He foresaw the enormous cost a political lack of vision would extract. Through his tireless commitment and leadership he delivered a manageable situation in Iraq, juggled the minefield of international conflict and geopolitics, and enabled the start of troop withdrawal. Without a vision drawn for him, he created one, got “buy in” from disparate parties, and ensured it became reality.

For a good example of strategy coupled with execution, look back to May 1944. The Allies were in the final stages of Operation Overlord, the plan to invade Europe. Deceptions had been in place for some time, running counter-intelligence that left the Germans guessing the landing places and the size of the force. For the Allies, all hinged on a knife-edge where even a vague weather forecast made for many sleepless nights. The Allied Staff knew losses would be very high in any attempted invasion. The Germans after all had years to plan defense of the French coast, and only a few years earlier had planned their own invasion across the Channel. If the enemy guessed right, or unlucky weather interrupted the landing force, disaster loomed, not victory.

Put in terms of strategy, the intent was clear. To attempt the biggest amphibious landing in history, recapture France and invade Germany. It also had to be somewhat of a surprise, too.  Reading the diaries of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, the Chief of the General Staff of the UK Military Command, one is struck by the work ethic, the endless travel and almost inhuman pressures. Alanbrooke toured his operations endlessly, talked and observed first hand, evaluated new ideas and technology, made crucial “HR” decisions on commanders and assignments, dealt with the politics and managed the egos of generals and statesman. But he never lost sight of the strategic intent, first to defend Britain and then to defeat Germany.

As a case study in linking up strategy and execution, Operation Overlord had a strategic vision, breakthrough objectives, measured milestones and specific accountabilities all clearly linked up and committed to at the top. And they were focused on execution, not excuses. The top leaders moved swiftly to remove commanders that didn’t deliver results. Everyone had to perform, period.

Fast forward to modern conflicts and here we find Petraeus again cutting to the essence of strategy and focusing relentlessly on execution. When asked about alternative plans, his response was crisp. “There is a Plan B. Make Plan A work”.

In any important endeavor, success depends more on execution than on planning.

There is no strategy without execution, and there is no execution without leadership.

In short, make Plan A work.

Tight Lines . . .

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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