Losing Focus: The Seductive Mistake Smart Leaders Make

As business leaders, we are on the firing line, making it happen, and trying to realize ever more difficult goals. Far too often, for every one step forward, we also take one, two or even three steps backwards by making that most seductive and dangerous of mistakes: We lose focus.

Losing Focus

As leaders, we are best able to realize challenging goals through a continuous, unrelenting focus on our most important 3-5 goals and priorities.

Unfortunately, we are constantly being bombarded with data, information, suggestions, programs, initiatives, ideas, and issues. With all that input, lists of priorities and goals grow to 10, 12, even 15. I have even seen one $20M company with a formal list of 26 programs and initiatives it was working on.

It is devilishly tricky to keep the required focus. We’ve all heard the lines:

  1. ” … and just one more thing … “
  2. “We can get it done quickly; it is not a big deal.”
  3. “Everything is an ‘A’ priority because everything is important.”

But the sad reality is that no individual and no company have the attention span, time and ability to properly focus on more than three to five key priorities at any one time.

The challenging part for us as leaders is that each goal, each priority, each initiative, in and of itself, is good, useful, and may be absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, when combined, all these good things become too much and unmanageable for us.

In his book, How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins discusses exactly this issue. For him, the second stage of decline in dying companies is “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” These failing companies try to do everything possible to correct their increasing weakness and irrelevance in the marketplace. But, this “pursuit of more” just weakens the company further, diffusing the leadership and company focus away from the essential issues in the business.

It’s Gotta Hurt

In order to keep the focus …

  • We have to limit our goals and priorities to the vital 3-5.
  • Then, we accomplish them.
  • Then, we establish the next essential three to five goals.

It’s easy to do in theory; it’s simple to write about. In reality, however, it hurts. We have to make tough decisions and decide whether or not to do something that can be useful in order to focus on more important goals. What gets excluded might be the cherished goal of a senior manager, or it might be the most important priority of a senior staff person. Still, if it is not one of the vital three to five goals, it needs to be cut.

  • “But, we are leaving something on the table.”
  • “We are under-estimating our team. We can do it all; we just will work harder.”
  • “All these priorities need to be done.”

All these statements may be true. But the overriding goal of the best leaders remains the same: Focus on fewer in order to get more done.

David Shedd has 10 years of success as president of a $200 million group of manufacturing and services companies, having overseen 19 different B2B businesses. Shedd is principal of Winning B2B Leadership, an advisory firm focused on small to middle-market B2B clients, while looking for his next company or group of companies to lead. David blogs at HelpingLeadersWin.com and his book, Build a Better B2B Business: Winning Leadership for Your Business-to-Business Company, is now now available at Amazon.com.
Originally published: Oct 18, 2011

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