Brandt On Leadership -- The Gift of Focus

Dec. 21, 2004
It's not time we need, it's effectiveness.

I've been looking for the perfect holiday present for myself, and I think I've found it. It's the one thing I probably need most going into next year. It's the one thing that will most increase my effectiveness not just next year, but in the all the years that follow. Unfortunately, it's also the one thing that neither you nor anybody else can buy, rent, or steal for me. I'll have to give it to myself: Focus. Ask any busy executive what he or she needs more of, and odds are the answer will be "time." Yet even if we could magically buy or steal more sand for our daily hourglasses, in most cases our issues with time don't relate to inventory, but to application. I'm convinced that most of us, given more hours, would simply squander them in the same ways we always do, with unplanned meetings that stretch for untold hours, with unnecessary memos that require unread responses, with unhelpful details on unimportant projects. What we lack isn't time, but effectiveness. And effectiveness comes not from endless activity through endless days, but from focus. How can you -- and I -- achieve greater focus? Two ways:

  • Schedule time to learn, think, plan, and teach: Most of us would reprimand a subordinate who presented a project or idea without a written plan including objectives, time frames, costs, expected benefits, etc. We ourselves prepare or direct the preparation of written plans for new products or initiatives to demonstrate that sufficient brainpower has been applied to ensure that the solutions they contain will succeed. Yet few of us in leadership positions have a written personal plan -- a personal constitution, if you will, that describes our goals and how we will achieve them. I was struck by the power and simplicity of this idea during a round-table discussion with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Although still interested in politics, Gingrich today seems far more concerned with how individuals and organizations grow and succeed. After leaving the House, Gingrich said, it took him two years to clarify what he wanted to do with his post-legislative life. He says he now tries to spend each day in only two activities: learning or teaching. How would you describe, in a sentence or less, how you want to spend your days to maximize your effectiveness and that of your organization? How would you (or your subordinates) describe the difference between that sentence and what you do now?
  • Communicate, delegate, coach, and trust: We all talk about empowerment, but when it comes to something really important, especially a crisis, we like everyone to know who's in charge. We flatter ourselves that nobody knows the industry/company/product/customer better than we do, and that nobody gets better results in less time, all of which may be true. Yet no matter how great the short-term benefits of taking control may seem, the long-term costs are almost always higher -- in lowered managerial morale and initiative, in lost chances to build staff experience and expertise, and, just as importantly, in reduced focus for ourselves. If we teach our subordinates that we like managing crises, pretty soon they'll make sure that we're involved in every crisis, whether they require our vast knowledge or not. Before we know it, we find ourselves not leaders or thinkers or planners, but reactive managers who lurch from one near-disaster to another, without a moment to focus on ourselves or our futures. How would you describe, in a sentence or less, how you want to coach your subordinates to deal with problems or crises? How would you (or your subordinates) describe the difference between that sentence and what you do now? And what are you going to do about it? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is now editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publishers of Chief Executive and dotCEO magazines
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