A CEO’s Guide to Finding Focus in a Noisy World

by | Aug 12, 2020

THE KEY IDEAS

1. Believe. Embrace an Essentialist mindset. Great leaders believe that a small number things are so valuable that they’re worth disproportionate effort, and most everything else is noise. They use this mindset to bring discipline and focus to their teams and their own work lives.

2. Decide. As a CEO, determining what’s most important takes judgment, intentionality, and constant recalibration. Put reflection time in your daily/weekly flight path to constantly revisit this question.

3. Act. Great CEOs have the discipline to align their time, energy, and attention behind the “vital few.” They stay focused. They actively work to tune out the noise.

*****

“I know I should be focused, but its hard to know on what.”

A common refrain for many leaders. This is plenty understandable and relatable.

CEOs, especially, given the multitude of stakeholders they are responsible for serving & balancing—employees, customers, partners, shareholders, the community.

From HR issues, to closing new deals, to maintaining customer relationships, to coaching and developing your team, to ensuring operational excellence, to honoring your “open door policy”… there are many competing forces tugging at you, all vying for your time and attention. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Making sense of all of this, identifying what matters most, and having the self-discipline to align your time/energy with critical few things is the stuff of effective CEOs.

 

FROM “TO-DO’S LIST” TO “THE CRITICAL FEW” – THE CASE FOR FOCUS

 

In the HBR article How the Best CEOs Differ From the Average Ones, the authors contends that:

“The best CEOs have an ability to rise above the details and understand the larger picture and context. They have a keen sense of priorities as they think and act. We summarize this as an ability to “separate the signal from the noise.” Great CEOs have a nose for what are the most significant issues, challenges, threats, and opportunities facing an organization. Their views about prioritization are clear and often quite independent.” The process of determining what’s most important takes judgment, intentionality, and constant recalibration.

Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, backs this up powerfully, making a strong case that taking the time to identify the small number of things that is of greatest value is so incredibly worth it because the world is constructed in a very disproportionate way. He refers to this as the “Law of the Vital Few.”

This is not a novel concept, of course. Pareto (the godfather of the 80/20 rule) has been talking about this since the 1800’s. And in the middle of last century, Joseph Juran, the father of the quality movement, made popular Pareto’s Principle by championing the idea that by identifying the right few problems, and solving the right few problems, you can massively increase the output… contrary to the logic that everything is of equal value.

Drawing on these universal truths, in Essentialism, McKeown goes on to propose four ideas:

  1. Do less, but do it better.
  2. Reject the notion that you should pursue everything. Tiny progress in a bunch of directions is of course far less desirable than great strides in the areas that matter most.
  3. Constantly question yourself and update your plans accordingly. The process of deciding what’s important is ongoing.
  4. Ensure that you enact the changes needed to focus on the vital few, and reject the “trivial many.”

The case for prioritizing is virtually indisputable (I’d relish the debate about prioritization and focus being unimportant!), but the gap between being clear on what matters most and aligning our team’s actions and our own actions behind those things is one of the biggest different-makers in CEO effectiveness.

Sure Dan, we get it by now. Focus is important. But on what? And how?

I’m going to stop short of providing a magic formula (if you have one, let me know!), a prescription for focus. But instead, offer up some simple tools & things to think about,

 

THE “WHAT” – TOP 4 IDEAS ON IDENTIFYING THE VITAL FEW

 

“Accomplish more by doing less – Everyone has the same 168 hours per week, those who win use that time to optimize for doing the right things well.” (Michael Hyatt)

 

#1 – Constantly ask yourself one simple question. A CEO mentor of mine taught me a question/practice whose power is only surpassed by its simplicity – “How can I create the most long-term value today?”

I began asking myself this every morning.

If you do nothing else, spend 3 mins with that question each morning before anything else happens and it will help center you on the vital few. Take it from me: these have the potential to be the 3 highest-returning minutes of your day!

 

#2 – Put on your “long-term” shades. They say that great decisions are made with the long-term in mind.

Reorient to your 5-year vision. As you zoom out and look at prioritization decisions through that lens, what seems most important today, this month, this quarter, this year?

Oftentimes, sequence matters. Imagine the hundreds of things that you need to accomplish to achieve your vision lined up like dominos. Find the lead domino; the one initiative that when pursued, makes it easier to accomplish everything else.

Or identify the bottleneck and address it first… so that all other high-impact, vision-creating initiatives that follow are easier/more effective. What’s the one thing such that by doing it, our 5-year vision becomes more attainable?

 

#3 – Think in terms of cost vs. impact. Of the various things vying for your time and attention, what is the impact of each (as measured by long-term value – revenue/profit/equity-value growth) vs. the cost (as measured by time, dollars, resources, opportunity cost, etc.).

Picture a 2×2 grid with cost and impact on the axes  Start with the low cost/high impact initiatives. Consciously say “No!” to the high cost / low impact stuff. Use the cost/impact score of each to determine its priority.

 

#4 – Urgency vs. Importance. Dwight Eisenhower was known for being a paragon of productivity and effectiveness, and used the method described in this article to focus his time on what mattered most (a process which would later make the cut as one of Steven Covey’s famed Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).

Eisenhower’s strategy for taking action and organizing your tasks is simple. Using a 2×2 matrix measuring urgency vs. importance, he encourages us to separate our actions based on four buckets:

#1 – Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).

#2 – Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).

#3 – Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).

#4 – Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).

As Covey noted: “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” You must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and do what’s important first.

 

THE “HOW” – ALIGNING OUR TIME AND ENERGY AGAINST THE VITAL FEW

 

“Its not about what you know. Its about what you do consistently.

Great, so you’ve gotten clarity on what’s most important. Here are some ideas around how to align your time and energy around the critical few so that they get done with consistency and excellence:

 

#1 – Defend your time & attention – don’t check email first thing in the morning. Email is the ultimate derailer. Checking it first thing in the morning can put you into reactive mode – the enemy of focus – and present all sorts of distractions that can take your focus off of the critical few before they ever had a chance.

There’s a growing body of brain science on this topic. The first few hours of the day set the tone for the entire rest of the day, so don’t be fooled into letting those hours get consumed reacting to whatever others put into your inbox.

Worried you’ll miss something in the morning? Remember the Covey quote above – “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” There are very few things that can’t wait 30 mins. If that is a concern, create an understanding with your team that you won’t check email first-thing, so call if they need something urgently.

 

#2 – Plan and time block each day. Take that time you just freed up when you said “no” to flipping on your email, and meet with yourself. Create a daily ritual that helps you recenter each morning on the critical few, and helps you avoid succumbing to the “temptation of the urgent.” Here are a few of the questions that I journal on (15 – 20 mins total) each morning.

  1. Look at our company one-page plan. What are the Top 3 highest-impact things that I can do today to create the most long-term shareholder value?
  2. Look at company one-page plan. Are there adjustments needed today in order to keep us on track to crush our quarterly objectives?
  3. What are ways I can inspire greater levels of performance on my team today?

Block time on your calendar to focus on what comes out of this morning exercise, and guard that time with your life. According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, researcher and author on the topic of goal-setting & habit-formation, “Deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions on what’s most important can double or triple your chances of success.”

 

#3 – Make real-time – sometimes tough – tradeoff decisions. Hold the line where needed. So you have your day/week plan… but something comes up. A client got upset. A few of your employees are in a tiff. While these things require best judgment depending on the situation, a few things to think about.

First, what is the marginal impact of you (specifically) focusing on it; and what is the marginal cost of you not focusing on it? If the issue or opportunity is one where you are the difference between success and failure for a high-impact or high-risk issue, you may consider reorienting your priorities. But oftentimes, when you stop to think about it for a split second, many fire drills don’t actually supersede the long-term value-creating activities that you committed to in #2 above.

Second, recognize the reality is that sometimes, you have to let little bad things happen in order to get the big, important stuff done. The cost of redirecting our time to fire-fighting, by definition, takes time away from what’s most important.

Third, create a “don’t do” list and adhere to it religiously.

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

“A lion is fully capable of capturing, killing, and eating a field mouse. But it turns out that the energy required to do so exceeds the caloric content of the mouse itself. So a lion that spent its day hunting and eating field mice would slowly starve to death. A lion can’t live on field mice. A lion needs antelope. Antelope are big animals. They take more speed and strength to capture and kill, and once killed, they provide a feast for the lion and her pride. … So ask yourself at the end of the day, ‘Did I spend today chasing mice or hunting antelope?’” ~Newt Gingrich

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