The ability of senior executives to focus is a life-and-death priority. Maintaining focus takes great mental discipline.
If a CEO wants to run a company in today’s de-structured, de-layered and post-reengineered world, he or she must focus with a laser-like clarity on the company’s business priorities and stay on them. Yet maintaining such a focus can be painful. Crises crop up like wildfires. Urgencies become the workday status quo. So how do the great ones do it? How do they focus?
The great ones learn to make choices based on potential value to the company. They recognize that they must think long-term. And they do whatever it takes to achieve clarity of thought.
- Get out of the office. The workday is filled with too many distractions to block out the time needed to focus on an issue, problem, or initiative. Leaving the office often solves this problem. I either lunch out alone or take advantage of travel to gain distance from the everyday distractions of the office and to focus on critical issues.
- Search for a new perspective. Vary your sounding board. Familiarity breeds contempt. When you analyze issues with people who speak the same language you do, you end up with confirmation of what you already know. Expand your mental horizons and talk to others outside your profession. Bounce problems and ideas off someone who’s not afraid to question or challenge you.
- Select priorities. Do those things that move the business forward. Stay focused on acts that benefit your business. Be clear on priorities and relentless in directing all activity toward achieving them. Review priorities daily, make sure direct reports know them inside and out, and review them religiously at every meeting to stay on target. Engage in a constant internal debate over each day’s issues, assessing the gravity of each item and choosing between the urgent, the important, the personal and the nice-to-do. Crises are urgent, but long-term strategy is vital.
- Balance work and family. In the family vs. work turf war there’s no contest—family wins. If things are affecting you at home, you can’t focus on doing A+ work at the office. Always handle the family issues first. But generally, when you are at work, be at work. And when you are home, be at home. When confronted with several business issues that look equally pressing, ask: “Which one will cause me the most trouble if I don’t institute the right set of actions?” That question helps you cut to the chase quickly!
- Bring others into the focusing fold. Instill a focus-orientation among your people. Spell out your expectations for staff members in writing. Whether your objectives for your direct reports involve sales or profit results, strategic issues or product development, put them down on paper. Figure out where the business drivers are and what the focus should be. Ask questions about the future landscape and what success looks like to ensure alignment. You set the tone by your questions. If you’re not asking the right questions, people will be confused over where to put their time and effort.
- Discard certain techniques. Keep the good stuff and toss the bad. Constantly evaluate what helps you achieve your objectives. Acknowledge what doesn’t work. Shorten staff meetings from two days a month to two hours a month. Spend more time with customers and meet with employees to keep connected to the business.
Maintaining a strategic focus involves understanding your role in building the corporate vision and what you need to do to move the business forward; creating the time and place to focus on your objectives; and inculcating a focusing philosophy among your troops by setting expectations and asking the right questions. Maintaining a strategic focus is not easy. But it makes the difference between an effective leader and a great one.