Business Productivity: For Executives – Focus

“The older I get, the more I see a straight path where I want to go. If you’re going to hunt elephants, don’t get off the trail for a rabbit.” — T. Boone Pickens, American financier

At the lofty C-Suite level, the SuperCompetent Key of Attention transforms into Focus. Suddenly, your capacity to concentrate on your work and only your work becomes paramount—much more critical that it was before, if only because your actions impact the company more completely than they ever have. A distracted, overwhelmed CEO or VP can be much more damaging than a middle manager who can’t keep his or her head in the game.

Worse, the higher you go, the more distractions you have to deal with. When you’re just Josephine Schmoe down in Cubical Land, it’s hard enough to filter out electronic distractions, sudden drop-ins, and the noisy neighbors who want to socialize all day outside your cube. When you enter management, you suddenly have even more people who want a piece of your time, and, often, more who actually deserve one; so you have to try extra hard to avoid wasting your time on distractions. You especially have to disconnect yourself from your electronic leashes (especially handhelds and the Web) and force them back into their original function as tools. Focus!

This becomes true in spades when you reach the uppermost tier of management, even as what is truly important shifts. No matter how hard you work, if you can’t maintain a tight focus on the key activities that directly affect your organization’s success, you’re never going to perform up to par—and neither will the organization you’re ostensibly leading. At best, you’ll be like the Red Queen, running as fast as you can to stay in the same place. At worst…well, let’s just say disaster looms. And again, as a leader, your failure hurts many more people than just you and your family.

I think the biggest problem of the modern-day executive isn’t a lack of commitment or work ethic. Most execs are perfectly willing to work hard, and for a distressing number of hours. And it’s not that they don’t understand basic time management, either: anyone who has made it to upper tier management (with the occasional exception of the boss’s son) has mastered the basics of time management, or they wouldn’t be there. The real problem is that many C-Suite executives haven’t learned to do expand and refocus their understanding of time management to take into account the realities of their new positions.

When you reach the C-Suite, your first task should be to take a very close look at your responsibilities, so that you can determine precisely what’s most important for your organization. Then, you have to trim away everything else. Everything! The most effective C-Suite managers do the following:

• Compartmentalize issues so that they’re more easily handled.
• Limit meetings, and make those they have shorter and fewer in number.
• Limit distractions of all kinds: drop-ins, phone calls, emails, etc.
• Hire staff to help them organize and prioritize their responsibilities.
• Practice healthy life-habits to enhance personal performance.
• Learn to say no when they need to, and to make it stick.

What they don’t do is micromanage or solve minor problems. They don’t have the time! Those things are rabbits, not elephants; and if you do have rabbits that need taking care of, then that’s what subordinates are for.

Which brings up, again, the issue of delegation. C-suite executives don’t have staffs just so that they can feel important; the real function of an executive staff is to handle all those distractions that would normally divert them from their responsibilities. When you’re at the top of the heap, maybe the buck really does stop with you, but you shouldn’t even see those measly little dollar bills, or even fifties or hundreds. At your level, maybe that plaque on your wall should read, “The Megabuck Stops Here.”

A good staff can’t keep you from wasting your time if you really want to, but they can definitely filter your calls and email, and keep people from barging through your door or otherwise bugging you when you’re trying to focus on more significant things. You need to be working on budgets, new marketing ploys, and how to respond to the Board’s request for your department’s priorities for the next fiscal year—not dealing with drama, or putting out low-level brushfires.

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