Lead with Focus to Create Ownership & Unlock Results

Lead with Focus to create Ownership & Unlock Profitable results

- 24 Best Leadership Practices | Part 2 of 24 -

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Without focus companies witness complexity instead of simplicity, chaos instead of clarity, and artificial buy-in instead of ownership. In large part, more companies go off the road due do a lack of communication, focus, and alignment than perhaps anything else. For example, data illustrates that 70 percent of change and transformation efforts fail, meaning only 30 percent of efforts succeed. However, and as McKinsey & Company noted, without focus this 30 percent success rate drops to a staggeringly low 12 percent. Simply, focus ensures a 2.5X greater chance of success. Indeed, vision alone is not sufficient. Without focus an inspired vision will never come to fruition. Tim Cook noted that the one key lesson he learned from Steve Jobs was that focus is key. As such, vision creates intention and establishes direction and ambition. On the other hand, focus lays out responsibility and deliverables.

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Why Focus is Vital to Success

Focus improves success rate by 2.5X because it drives simplicity instead of complexity, ownership instead of artificial buy-in, and embracement of change instead of perpetuation of the status quo.

Focus is a precursor to ownership and impact. Leaders never advance to such a lofty place where focus and prioritization are no longer necessary. The same is true for those they’re leading. Busyness does not equal productivity. As legendary coach John wooden noted, “Never confuse activity with accomplishment.” Accordingly, without focus and prioritization the most intense work and engaged employee will be for nothing. For example, employees can’t help a company reach its aspirational goal if they don't know where the company is headed. It’s no surprise that studies have shown that one in three companies will cease to exist in 5 years, up from one in twenty 50 years ago. In large part this stems from three areas: (1) over the past 50 years enterprise complexity has increased by 35X, (2) 50 percent of performance requirements are contradictory, and (3) only 30 percent of employees are engaged with their work, meaning 70 percent are either destroying or not creating any value day in and day out. In large part, this stems from leaders not ensuring focus and alignment which are the precursors to simplicity, ownership, and engagement. On the flip side of this, leaders that bring laser focus have a 2.5X greater chance of success compared to those who don't ensure focus. As Jack Welch noted, “Leaders make sure people not only see the vision, they live and breathe it.” Thus, leaders must usher a vision from ideological to psychological ownership and ultimately to action by ensuring focus, prioritization, and ownership.

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Focus Ensures Everyone Is On the Bus

Exhibit 2 (Click to Enlarge)

Unfortunately, a grave mistake is for leaders to only percolate the vision among the upper echelon, ensuring middle managers on down are not only uninspired but uncertain where the company is headed. This quickly escalates to energy and financial leakage. For example, most organizations are divided into four large groups, specifically (1) upper management, (2) middle management, (3) first line managers, and (4) frontline employees (See Exhibit 2). The goal is to have everyone on the bus. However, the common scenario is that (1) upper managers are speeding ahead in their fancy race cars with little regard for those who are trying to keep up, (2) middle managers are frantically trying to keep pace in their dilapidated Model T cars, (3) first line managers are struggling to keep up in their old school bikes, and (4) the frontline are desperately trying to run/walk to keep pace with everyone ahead.

Employees often lack the focused alignment, empowerment, autonomy, and accordingly bias for action to drive the change a company needs. This becomes more and more prevalent the further down one goes in an organization - equating to the least focus and poorest employee engagement with those who spend the most time with the customers (i.e., the frontline and first line managers).

In this scenario, only the leaders have access to a modern vehicle with a GPS system, allowing them to arrive at the company’s desired destination most expediently. However, because the leaders have not made it clear where they are headed everyone under them (middle managers on down) is reliant on trying to feverishly keep up with the leader’s race car (i.e., the only one with a GPS system). In a best case situation, perhaps the middle and first line managers can follow for a quarter to one mile but within a few hundred feet the frontline will be lost. Give it another 1-2 miles and everyone will be aimlessly lost, going their own way. This problem stems from two core issues. Firstly, leaders did not provide their employees with alignment or focus on where the company was headed (i.e., only the leaders knew where the company was headed). Secondly, employees (middle managers on down) were not given the proper resources to take them where they needed to go because leadership was hoarding all the resources for driving positive change. The "focus" litmus test is whether one can ask any employee (from the bottom-up) to clearly explain the company’s mission, purpose, and aspirational goal. If a company thinks it will get an array of answers or vague replies it can be certain there is a lack of focus and alignment which will lead to energy and financial leakage. Thus, leadership must ensure enterprise wide focus and alignment via the following:

  1. Drive clear, transparent communication to the entire enterprise (from the front-line on up), ensuring the "focus" litmus test can be answered by any employee within the company.

  2. Create laser like focus and prioritization on the core enterprise initiatives. Simply, leaders must ensure that all the business units are truly collaborating together to advance the enterprise goals and milestones instead of working in silos to advance individual business unit goals.

  3. Implement an enterprise score card (i.e., company wide KPI's) that drives sustainable, cross-functional focus and incentivization on both short-term and long-term goals.

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To thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution where speed not size creates winners, leaders must bring focus to the chaos, simplicity to complexity, and true ownership instead of artificial buy-in

Ultimately, everyone can’t move together if they don’t know where to go. As Henry Ford noted, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” As such, focus really matters and the ability as a leader to make things as simple and as transparent as possible. As Jim Collins and Jerry Porras stated, “Building a visionary company requires one percent vision and 99 percent alignment [i.e., focus].” Unfortunately, and in response to growth, most companies become more complex adding layers of red tape, decision-making rights, and processes - all of which exponentially increase silos and the interdependencies among business units. Instead, winners ensure growth by delayering complexity and driving laser focus across the enterprise. Thus, and in order to survive in this Fourth Industrial Revolution where speed not size creates winners, leaders must bring immense focus which ultimately creates simplicity not complexity, ownership rather than artificial buy-in, and embracement of change versus perpetuation of the status quo. Indeed, considering focus brings 2-3X greater success than those without it the decision to lead with focus is simple. 

Read the other best leadership practices HERE.

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24 Best Leadership Practices
- Series Overview -

The following article is Part 2 of a 24 part series on leadership (See all 24 best leadership practices HERE). To summarize, leadership is everyone’s business. Moreover, leadership abilities are not some innate talent that some were either born with or not but rather is a highly learnable skill. As such, everyone has the potential to become a great leader as long as one embraces a mindset of continuous improvement. Simply, leadership is not so much about inherent gifts and raw talent but rather the emotional awareness, humility, and perseverance to understand that leadership is a lifelong journey that is never mastered. Indeed, aspiring leaders must acquire the endurance of a marathoner, the musculature of a sprinter, and the mental fortitude to embrace that there is never a finish line but rather an unending goal of continuous transformation.

Ultimately, the leadership journey is not about becoming someone else but instead is about becoming one's best self so that in turn one can help others become their best self. And, while there are many facets that go into successful leadership we have identified 24 best leadership practices all of which are grouped into one of three categories, namely (1) inspire, (2) empower, and (3) innovate (see all 24 practices HERE).

  1. INSPIRE: To inspire action, great leaders appeal to people's hearts more than their minds. Simply, visionary leaders plan with the mind, lead with the heart, and reflect with the soul.

  2. EMPOWER: Great leaders empower those they are leading while simultaneously creating a collaborative culture that promotes the notion that together we can accomplish anything as long as we don't care who gets the credit.

  3. INNOVATE: Visionary leaders embrace change and understand that the term "good enough" is used by the lazy to justify inaction. As such, great leaders disrupt themselves and their companies before others do it for them.

Leadership is the greatest race one will ever run – one without a finish line but also one with an exponential ceiling for those that embrace change, growth, and learning. While the level of employee talent may determine the potential of an organization it is the leader that ultimately unlocks that potential and determines the success of both the organization and its people. Although no leader will be a master at each of the proposed 24 leadership practices, awareness is often the greatest agent for change and continuous improvement. As such, we hope the proposed practices will be of service to you in maximizing not only your leadership potential but also the potential of those around you.


Joshua Seedman is the founder and chairman of PNI Consulting, a management consulting firm that specializes in global transformations. He has over 20 years of operating and general management experience with expertise in organizational transformations, customer experience, employee engagement, digital transformations, sales & marketing, operational turnarounds, culture/change management, and high-stakes negotiations. His experience includes executive roles within F500 companies, top-tier consulting leadership (McKinsey & Company), over 10 years of global P&L ownership, and corporate lawyer (Davis Polk & Wardwell). He received his MBA from Kellogg School of Management and his Juris Doctor (cum laude) from Northwestern University School of Law.

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