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it all starts with focus

And Leadership Commitment to Execute Strategy

starting with leadership

You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” – Winston Churchill

Has this happened to you? You’re in a meeting and someone comes up with what everyone thinks is a good  idea. The issue is that it requires effort in the next day or two by your team, which already is busy with their own work. What do you do? Ignore the request or give it to your go-to person who already has an enormous workload but will get it done, whatever it takes?

You see the problem. It is not unique. Quite frankly, most people in organizations do not know what their focus should be. And it’s not their fault because leaders have not effectively communicated priorities to their organizations. In a 2015 survey of 11,000 senior executives, leaders and managers from more than 400 companies conducted by the London Business School, they were asked to list their company’s top three to five priorities. The results were not good. Even with five tries, on average, only around 50% could identify the top priority and only a third could identify their firm’s top three.

Doing Vs. Leading

Effective leaders must clearly communicate to the organization what is important to the business so that the rest of the organization can plan and prioritize their work. Of course, you say, that seems straightforward and makes a whole lot of sense, but it’s my experience that most businesses and the people working those businesses don’t operate that way.

We can all agree we’ve never been busier. The problem is we’re busy “doing,” and not necessarily doing what’s important for the business. We’ve all done it. We’re doing marketing; we’re doing finance; we’re doing fundraising, etc. We’re “doing” various activities, but why are we “doing” them? And, are we “doing” what’s most important for the business, which would enable us to prioritize what we’re “doing.”

Internally focused leadership

In a 2017 Harvard Business Review article by Ron Carucci, “Executives Fail to Execute Strategy Because They’re Too Internally Focused,” he identifies reasons why he feels leaders are not successful in executing their strategies. Carucci believes many leaders’ focus is on internal issues (e.g., resolving conflicts, working on budgets, and managing performance), and as a result, are not paying attention to bigger outward-facing strategic issues such as competitive movement, customer needs, and technology trends. He cites one study reporting that 70% of leaders spend on average one day a month reviewing strategy and 85% of leadership teams spend less than an hour per month on strategy.

Carucci also points out that many leaders are in denial about trade-offs and lack the discipline to narrow strategic focus. Strategy is about choices and trade-offs and when leaders dilute organizational focus by overcommitting, it “institutionalizes mediocrity and cynicism.”  According to Carucci, “Saying no is one of the greatest gifts an executive can give their organization.”

Key Takeaways

If it’s not clear to people in most organizations what their focus  should be, it should be very clear that people are likely not prioritizing what’s most important to the business if they don’t know what that is. And our staffs are getting busier and busier “doing” the busy work that is burning them out and certainly not impacting the business in the way its leaders want.

Ask yourself, “Have I clearly communicated what’s important to the business to the entire organization?” If not, make a plan to do that soon. You cannot expect alignment or to optimize performance if people in the organization aren’t aware of what’s most important to the business.

Leaders must FOCUS first.

2015 Survey, London Business School, designed by Donald Sull, Senior lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management and Rebecca Homkes, Teaching Fellow of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, London Business School
Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull, “Why strategy execution unravels—and what to do about it”, Harvard Business Review, February 2015
Ron Carucci, “Executives Fail to Execute Strategy Because They’re Too Internally Focused“, Harvard Business Review, November 2017

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