Sherlock Holmes has focus.
“What are we trying to achieve here?”
It’s such a simple question. But for a messed-up organization, the answer is impossible. They’re divided against each other on the inside, fighting to look good on the outside, and afraid to stand behind a priority that isn’t the flavor of the day.
So you listen to their words, and try to make sense of stuff like this:
- Idealism versus profit: “We want to change the world, and hopefully earn a living at the same time.”
- Pie-in-the-sky revenue models: “Our concept is unlike any other. We’ve got to spread the word. Our brand will do the talking for us, and eventually we’ll sell this thing for billions.”
- All-over-the-place goals: “It’s all about investing in the next big thing, but we can’t forget efficiency and customer service.”
If you can’t understand what a government agency, business, hospital, school, religious organization, etc., is doing, it is always a leadership problem.
Most leaders would say they agree with you – but that it’s other leaders’ fault. (It may be helpful to know that there is a preponderance of narcissistic personality disorder among executives.)
Though criticism is rare, and gets rarer the higher you go, they tend to react to negative feedback angrily, defensively and with “proof” that the accuser is wrong:
“It’s not my fault. I set clear priorities in my speech the other week. I wrote a blog post about this too. Plus we have a written strategy. And I tell people what I want. I even promote those who share and can implement the agenda.”
But the leader’s job is not only to talk, dictate, act. That’s activity, not result.
The leader’s job is to focus, and to focus on the right thing rather than the popular one. All people like unlimited options – there’s always another trend – and leaders do not want to be wrong. So they try to do everything, or at least all the things they need to do to “not get into trouble.”
But they are in trouble. Because the customer (public) does not value a discombobulated brand. Who are you? They want to know. Very simply – what do you offer?
Employees are the same. They want to know who they’re working for, but too often they don’t really know. Not only are the articulated priorities confusing, there is normally a yawning gap between rhetoric and reality.
Leaders should understand this about the people they employ:
- They get hired without knowing the full picture, and it takes years of familiarity to really figure that out. Often they leave the organization in disappointment, before they have a chance to find out at least what the partial picture is.
- They rise up the ranks watching leaders go in and out. Priorities come, priorities go. What mattered yesterday or last year, suddenly doesn’t count. This has a dulling effect on the senses, especially for people who are deeply committed to and invested in a single organization or very focused field of work.
- They see technology changing pretty rapidly, so that skills valued only 2-3 years ago are becoming automated and obsolete. After awhile, they may stop trying to adapt – it seems impossible.
Leaders can turn the ship around. These kinds of actions make a concrete difference:
- Use executive communication better – talk about the problems that the organization faces, the adaptive choices, and why we’re going this way instead of that. (Preferably, engage employees in formulating the strategy.) Along the way, accept criticism, even welcome it – and be willing to change course in terms of strategy, as long as the end goal is achieved.
- Portray a narrative that offers continuity from one leader to the next – how does each represent a chapter in history? Employees and external stakeholders want to understand how the organization’s activities are really “one.” It is helpful to acknowledge the temporary nature of leadership, and how one’s activities really are about a stewardship model rather than a monarchy.
- Once a strategic direction is chosen, stick with it over the long haul. Engage employees in making it work, and working through the problems that get in the way. Eliminate from the organization or sideline those who undermine its direction, or its executive team. (This includes other executives.) “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
- In a changing environment, eliminate unnecessary work and praising successful efforts to adapt – often. In a constantly shifting environment, priorities must often be changed on the fly. It’s important to remove work as often as one adds it, to avoid overloading people with a confusing pile of assignments they can’t prioritize.
- Promote “boundary-less” collaboration – and make an example of infighters. Limited resources do not permit an organization to puff up unnecessary stovepipes. Energy must be pooled for a common cause. People who can’t get along with each other are toxic to organizational culture.
- Training, training, training – rinse and repeat. You can have a great workforce, but without the necessary skills their value decreases. Training is not expensive – make it happen on work time. Make it happen through on the job training. This includes not only technical skills but also critical thinking, project management, customer service, and more. Training is the prerequisite for adapting to the future.
Tried-and-true tactics are still useful. Be a dictator when you have to be (sorry, but it’s true). Deploy the right people to the right mission. Focus on achievable, low-hanging fruit first. Engage the staff in spreading the word for you – make them your voluntary brand ambassadors.
There are so many things a leader can do. But they’re only means to a goal, which is to accurately identify the priority that is most important, shift most resources to that, and eliminate everything that does not contribute.
This activity is in its essence the distillation of the brand. It is what you promise to do extraordinarily well, better than your competition, enough to fund you more than a generic with no reputation.
Great brands have focus. They deliver both a superior product or service, and a great emotional experience.
It follows, then, that leadership is really about brand-building.
This is true externally – selling TVs, providing government services, giving patients chemotherapy, teaching high schoolers history.
It is also, and more fundamentally, a must-have internally.
Leadership at its core is recruiting and retaining employees to achieve focused, tangible results that the customer will appreciate.
* All opinions my own.
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