The pinnacle of generating value within our companies is the ability to execute. Unless you’re in a corporate environment with a strict career ladder, the opportunity to grow within a company and attain more responsibility is determined by your ability to generate value for your team and the company as a whole.

As we will explore in this post through the introduction of the Execution Pyramid, an individual who operates at higher levels of the Pyramid will see a faster rate of both personal and professional growth.

The main idea behind the Execution Pyramid was first developed by my partner at Nova Founders Capital, Mads Faurholt-Jorgensen and we have since used and developed the model to help our team members grow exponentially, guiding them on the path to execution whilst adding value at every stage. Whether you’re working with a company at an early stage of its development, like many in our portfolio, or a company that is more established, the principles are the same.

The philosophy behind the Pyramid transcends experience levels, so whether you are early on in your career or an experienced professional, being cognizant of the levels can help you understand how to maximize your impact and add value.

The Execution Pyramid utilizes a hierarchical structure and is composed of three distinct layers with seven steps in total. The steps in layer one are substitutes for one another and the quicker you rise, the better. From step 3 (Summary) and on, the steps become complementary and add on to the value you provide to the team and company. In some cases, you can execute at one level without the lower layers, but I highly recommend that you don’t. I’ll give examples as I go through the individual layers on how to do both.

Execution Pyramid

LAYER 1: The Base Layer — Understanding the importance of time

Execution Pyramid - Base Layer

The first layer consists of three steps and goes from adding no value to helping the team or management be more effective by saving time.

Step 1: No information

To illustrate the No information layer, imagine a team member reading an article with important updates about a topic relevant to the team (a software update, changes to a procedure, legal changes, etc.) and them not sharing that information with the team. In this case, the team member adds no value and in some cases, value may even be lost. The rest of the team will have to spend the same time understanding and potentially sourcing the same piece of information. With a high opportunity cost across all of our companies, this highlights the importance of sharing basic information amongst peers and team members.

The same concept applies to software development when documenting code, participating in meetings on behalf of a team, conducting an analysis, and so on. Information is the currency of adding value.

Step 2: Full information

The second step in the base layer is giving full information. You find a relevant article and send the link around to your colleagues without any further information. While you may help the team by sharing the article, the value you’re adding is very limited. It will take the rest of your team the same amount of time and effort to get the information as it took you.

Step 3: Summary

The highest step in the base layer is mastering the art of the summary. You’ve completed a piece of work: attended a meeting, conducted research, read an article about a relevant topic or similar tasks. Instead of giving the full story, you’re now summarizing the key points. It’s critical to this step that you understand both the topic you are working with and the business context. It’s impossible to summarize a piece of information and highlight the most important points if you aren’t able to filter the relevant from the irrelevant. At this step, you are now saving time for your teammates or manager, making the process of knowledge-sharing more effective.

Action points:

  • Think about how you can boil the research or article down to a few bullet points. It is particularly important to think about the “so what” of the article – what are the key takeaways?
  • Make sure your summary doesn’t get too long – most people are busy so strive towards a summary that takes less than 2-3 minutes to read
  • Think about who the summary is relevant for in your team and share your summary with them
Execution Superman

LAYER 2: The Decision layer – Enabling informed decisions

Execution Pyramid - Decision Layer

The second layer is about making information actionable and involves presenting options, giving recommendations and a way to execute the plan. In particular, it’s important to show the thought process behind the recommendations and ideas as you progress further towards the top of the Execution Pyramid.

The progress from step to step in the first layer requires nothing more than a conscious decision to do a better and more value-adding job. Progressing from one step to another in the second layer requires an increasingly profound understanding of the business. For example, it is impossible to recommend an option and give an explicit plan of execution if you aren’t familiar with the challenges within your field.

Step 4: Present options

Building on from giving a great summary (Step 3) the next value-add is to present the options that are available to the team or company. By presenting options, you are making the decision-making easier for the team leader.

Aside from enabling your manager to make a more efficient and informed decision by presenting the options you see, this will also train you in understanding the decision-making process. Does your manager bring up other options based on your summary that you didn’t think of? Did she pick the option you would have gone for? Make sure to get the most out of this step and ask questions. Seek to understand why she may prefer to act differently than you would and do your best to understand how she could see options that may not have been obvious to you. Assuming you’ve joined a team with a leader that you can learn from, this part of the process is the best opportunity to get an insight into how they think and approach problem-solving and decision making.

Action points:

  • Make sure that you don’t end up with too many options – in most cases, 3-5 will do
  • Do your best to be MECE (Mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) in picking your options so they aren’t indirect duplicates
  • Ask questions when you go through the options with your team/manager
Execution Superman

Step 5: Recommendation

When you’ve presented the summary (step 3) and the options (Step 4), the next obvious step is to make a decision and indicate which option you would go with. Don’t be afraid to make recommendations from your options, even if you aren’t completely comfortable. Just highlight it when you present your recommendation that you aren’t completely sure, making it clear that from what you understand, you would go with option X. This is a great starting point for a discussion and for you to get valuable feedback on why that may or may not work.

Note that many have a tendency to jump straight from Summary to Recommendation (or sometimes even without the summary). It’s difficult for your manager to evaluate whether your recommendation is truly the best if he doesn’t understand how you got there. Helping your manager understand your process, means you need to help him answer five questions about your process:

  1. Which options did you consider and why did you consider these options?
  2. What was your basis for evaluating them?
  3. Why do you recommend the option you’ve picked?
  4. Which critical assumptions did you make in picking your recommendation over the other options?
  5. If your critical assumptions were different, which options would you then go for? (if you have more than two such critical assumptions, you may need to be selective in doing this)

When picking your recommendation, do your best to be as structured as possible. Could you evaluate all the options based on a universal set of criteria? (Tables and grading (or Harvey Balls for visual presentations) are great for this). The better you manage to explain your train of thoughts and your process to pick your recommendation, the easier it is for your manager to make a decision. The decision-making changes from understanding a problem and thinking about options and pros/cons to simply a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Of course, the longer process will be initiated if the answer is no, but as you get better and so do your recommendations, a larger share of your recommendations will hopefully materialize.

Action points:

  • Be structured in your evaluation – it makes the following discussion much easier and concrete
  • Get input on your evaluation on qualitative criteria (from team members or online research) so you avoid any bias you may have
  • Ask questions when you go get feedback on your recommendation

Step 6: Plan for execution

Once you’ve picked a recommendation, the next step is to plan how to execute on the idea. This step requires an excellent understanding of the business and the particular challenges and bottlenecks you may face in the execution. It is incredibly important to highlight any single points of failure and to identify the main stakeholders in the successful execution of the project. Finally, the plan of execution should include a clear timeline and an overview of the resources required to succeed. Action points:

  • Consider which critical assumptions you’ve made – does your plan have a single point of failure?
  • Make sure to include a timeline broken down by each milestone
  • If you are not completely confident about your plan (in whole or parts of it), mention that upfront, when you present it to your team
Execution superman

LAYER 3: The Autonomous Layer — Mastering the art of execution

Execution Pyramid - Execution Layer

In the autonomous layer, the process and nature of the work change significantly. You will pro-actively fix challenges as they arise. You will take responsibility for the results, and not just the execution of projects. This is the highest degree of value in an organization. If the manager doesn’t have to spend time with you on defining your tasks, you can spend the time on developing your skills and think about how you can keep on developing.

Step 7: Execution

The top of the pyramid consists of only one thing: Execution. While this may sound very simple, don’t rush into this! It’s a double-edged sword and while a successfully executed autonomous project may buy you some brownie points, a failed one may put you in bad standing. Executing autonomously has multiple points of failure. Failing on any of the underlying layers will lead to a negative outcome, even from a successful step 6. In other words, the business impact of executing the wrong plan may be anything from bad – at best – to disastrous, even with excellent execution.

One final consideration before jumping into the execution phase is your relationship with your manager. Depending on the amount and nature of the trust you have with your boss, she may not be comfortable with you going solo on your plans yet. Even in situations with a great and trustful relationship between you and your boss there may be reasons unbeknownst to you why working autonomously isn’t the best option at that time. For bigger organizations, there may be information that you haven’t yet received, which – had you known about – would drastically change the direction and what you would spend your time on. Action points:

  • Make sure you get feedback on your plan internally
  • Even though you may be at the execution step, it’s always a good idea to inform your team/manager about your plan
  • Once you start executing, make sure you take full end-to-end responsibility for the success of the project. If you are taking on a project, there are no excuses for not delivering

You are never on just one step

Depending on the nature of the task, you may be able to progress faster on certain tasks than others. If you’ve have joined a marketing team for example and have been tasked with doing AdWords, you may get to the execution level relatively fast when it comes to the day-to-day optimization, but that may not mean that you yet have the experience to significantly change the total budget. This has an important implication: Not only does the amount of value you create in a given area depend on how far up the pyramid you are able to operate, the value you add to the company overall is also a function of the number of different tasks you can comfortably deal with at a higher level (step 4 and beyond).

What’s in it for me?

All the talk about how to add value to the team or the company may lead you to ask, “What’s in this for me?” The answer is simple: Unlimited growth potential – both personally and within the company! When people are hanging around at the lower levels, the interaction they have with their boss will be more instructive: Which tasks to look at, how to approach them, etc. Once you progress up the pyramid, the nature of the relationship changes. The role of the boss is now to coach and support you – to help you understand and eventually find the answer yourself.


Image credits: ComicVine, WallPaperCave, ForWallpapers.

One thought on “Generating Value Through Execution: 7 Steps to Rising in a Start-Up

  1. Great article Stefan!
    Would you say that the difference between startup and corporate companies is the right hand axis? The larger the company gets the harder it is to measure each persons value-add as a member of a homogeneous group. To counter that you can coach the group to lift the average level rather than trust in directions and self motivational value-add.

Comments are closed.