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Leadership Thought #431 – FOCUS, Focus, focus

April 9, 2013

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If I had to pick one thing that inhibits success the most amongst small business and nonprofit leaders, I would say it is a lack of sustained focus.  By the very nature of them being entrepreneurs, they tend to be very opportunistic.  It is common for entrepreneurs to see a business opportunity around every corner.  Their mindset is that every problem has a solution and the only obstacle to progress is a lack of effort. Unfortunately, this is only partially true.  Yes, every problem does have a solution, but the effort needs to be put forth by the right people with the right plan.  It is not merely a question of resources, attention, and willingness to put forth effort.  Great leaders and strong businesses focused on the wrong opportunities/problems typically only achieve mediocrity at best.  At worst, this distracts their true potential for greatness by limiting their attention on what they should be doing in the first place.  It also creates business vulnerabilities that should never have existed.

If everything becomes a priority or if priorities are constantly shifting, then nothing truly is a priority.  No one business or individual is capable of being effective at everything.  Time is also finite and how we allocate our resources within this universal constraint is critical.  Often, our biggest asset is our people, and most employees are easily distracted and/or overwhelmed on a daily basis.   One of the primary responsibilities of a leader is to keep his/her people focused on what’s most important.  In his famous book, Good To Great, Jim Collin’s talks about success being an intersection of three things: your passion, your talent, and a clear understanding of your economic denominator.  I’ve always liked this mode of thinking.  To be able to do something well, you need to have a passion for doing it in the first place, you need to have the skill set to get it done well, and it must fit effectively in your economic model.   There are many things we could do that satisfy one or even two of these criteria, but to be great at something you need to nail all three.

I encourage my clients to minimize their number of organizational priorities using carefully thought through screening criteria that are consistently applied.  The goal is to keep the organization diligently focused on these few important items through successful completion.  Making good decisions and then ensuring effective execution is what leadership is all about.  One of my colleagues used to advise his clients to focus on their “Big Three,” I prefer no more than 5-7 key business initiatives taking place at any one time.  The smaller the company, the fewer priorities it can handle.

As a leader, you should always strive to build a solid foundation upon which the organization can thrive and grow.  And, a foundation is only ever as good as its engineering.  The most important decisions leaders must make are what to say “no” to.  By doing this, you allow the organization to build the breadth and depth of requisite capacity to share the load and distribute the weight of responsibility evenly.  Unfortunately, it’s much easier for the typical entrepreneur to say “yes” much more often than he/she should.  It is a knee jerk reaction.  As a result, their foundation begins to exhibit cracks and they end up struggling to maintain performance under the weight of their own making.

When properly applied, focus is liberating.  The best way to combat complexity is always with simplicity.  Far too many leaders unnecessarily complicate their business model.  Success shouldn’t always be about struggle.  When things are going right it does and should feel comparatively easy.  I tell my clients this all the time and they don’t believe me until they begin to operate with sustained focus, and it inevitably happens.  Another colleague of mine who has a remarkable business track record repeatedly tells me that one of the first signs of an underperforming leader is that he/she is working too hard at too many things and their life is completely out of balance.  These individuals sadly end up becoming activity junkies launching in multiple and different directions with little rhyme nor reason.  The struggle has become what defines them rather than the result.

If history has proven anything to us, it is the potential power of a small group of focused, dedicated and aligned individuals who believe in a shared common purpose.  Focus, focus, focus, especially when it is hard and good things will happen.