Anyone can be brilliant at any one thing for a certain period of time. I'll show you what I mean.

Can you sink a three pointer? Well, then, for the amount of time it takes you swish the ball from 24 feet out, you are the next NBA all-star.

Now, show me another one. And another. And another. Not so easy, huh? And you thought you were Stephen Curry...

The same can be said about so many other actions and endeavors. Maintaining a high level of skill in a repeatable way is much harder than pulling off the feat once. Once can be luck. Twice might be modest ability. Doing a thing each and every time one is expected to do it, and doing it well . . . that's true mastery. Our friend Malcom Gladwell would instruct us all to go put in our 10,000 hours of practice and then, maybe, we can begin to call ourselves 'skilled'.

The issue with being a reliably high performer is continuum. We might look at achievement as the ability to complete a task with extreme precision or quality. Capability - doing that same thing in a repeatable way - is harder. Our ability may level out over time - the result of learning, practice and whatever innate skill we brought to the task - but as we introduce frequency, we also introduce error.  Like Lucy and Ethel trying to keep up with the conveyor belt at the sweets factory, eventually, we're going to make a mess. 

This inverse relationship between quality and frequency might look like this:

 

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So, we have a problem. We are leaders who must solve problems but we never have enough time or resources to focus on any one problem as much as we'd like. In business, perhaps unlike other professions, we don't get to specialize. We must be generalists. 

Now, we've acknowledged the need to have ability related to a task and we understand we must solve that task with some amount of frequency. Now, let's look at the third leg on this stool.

We all know, in the worlds of business and leadership, no one gets to just hire great people or achieve record breaking comp revenue growth and forsake all else. We're all managing 42 million things a day, right?

So now, I'm trying to do something well, not once, but repeatedly, and my focus or attention toward achieving that one goal has a detrimental impact on my ability to achieve a second or third objective and vice versa. How many goals or aims can I have before my ability to hit any of them is substantially degraded? Lucy and Ethel had a hard enough time with one conveyor belt, running ever faster, as the candy kept flying at them. Imagine a second, or third or a dozen conveyors! (If you're asking 'who are these Lucy and Ethel people he keeps referring to??', try YouTube... I'll wait....)

Now, where was I? Oh, yes...

Business Is Like A Game of Wack-A-Mole

You've played that game before. You grab your mallet, hit the little critters as they pop up in front of you and as their persistence is maintained and their speed increases, your arm finally gives out and the moles win, laughing at you and your pathetic attempts to hinder the rodent onslaught.

Whack-A-Mole represents a wonderfully distilled demonstration of the 3 axis problem we examined above. I can hit one mole quite well. I am reasonably good at hitting several of them in succession even as they come at me with increasing speed. But ask me to play four or five Whack-A-Mole consoles simultaneously with those little vermin relentlessly popping up all around me, ready to cackle with disdain when I fail to subdue them?! Curses!

So, are we to admit defeat, surrender to the moles and accept that the game is un-winnable? Just tell Wall Street "Sorry, our quarterlies are too hard to hit, we're gonna take a red mark this reporting period"?

Uh, no.

Great Leaders Understand Achieving Results Means Managing Contradiction

In my years of filmmaking, we’d often jokingly pose the age old quandary to clients and collaborators: ‘Do you want it good, cheap or fast? Pick two.’ If I have unlimited resources in one area, it should be a cinch to manage. The problem is, we never have all we want of anything. And working on one measure often results in a contradictory pressure in another. Think Newton’s third law.   


It’s about sequencing - and sometimes executing the sequence is more important than where you begin it.

Often the things we are measured on have opposing forces associated with them. Growing my revenue means I may see cost increases. Expanding my market share could impact my customer service. We don't get to ignore one KPI and celebrate achieving another. Focusing too much on one mole and letting another pop up around us is a recipe for disaster. In order to continue our achievement of our business goals, we must ensure we move forward in all of our key performance measures. Our organizations and our growth plans are often a symbiotic mix of many metrics and, like any ecosystem, balance matters. We need all three legs on our stool. 

So, what do stronger leaders do differently than leaders who are less successful? What do top-ranking professionals understand about maintaining balance?

1) Know which mole to whack next

It is foolish to think we can do it all, all of the time. I've watched leaders march into a new role and, armed with belief in their own 'rock star' status they set about being number 1 in every measure. They are certain that their special sauce is so zesty that they can run the tables and own the leaderboard in every stat. This is often a one way ticket to crushing reality and burnout. It's also foolish to believe that we can just choose to 'suck' at some items which are justifiably within our business' value proposition. Those companies that abdicate their responsibility for attending to all aspects of their enterprise don't stay around very long. The key, then, is making choices. Good leaders understand the art of prioritization. Show me a group of people, equally smart, each with the same resources, and the probable leader among them is the one who understands what to do next and has the requisite skills to marshal a team toward taking that action.

So, how do leaders just 'know'?

I've often heard bosses instruct teams to 'do the right thing' or lead the 'right way'. This is oversimplification and incomplete. Managing contradiction and moving results forward means choosing the correct next 'right thing'. With threats to your business all around you and challenges to your growth plans hitting you daily, which of those areas isn't a necessary focus? Of course, they are all critical. A great leader chooses which target is next to receive their attention and plots each of the successive challenges in a methodical approach toward achieving a goal. It’s about sequencing - and sometimes executing the sequence is more important than where you begin it. In order to do this, we need to change some mental modeling.

DO: Sit down and examine how many moles you are trying to hit daily. Are you in 'firefighter mode' most of the time? Do you need to delegate some of your workplace challenges to free yourself up or maybe sequence your own problem solving? Analyze your business to determine what your most dangerous shortfall or missed result is. Look for economies of scale and try to find metrics, that when moved favorably, lift others.

DON’T: Create a plan that inhibits your ability to remain flexible. Conditions change. I always guide my teams to ‘work their plans’, but only a fool stays focused on one area just because ‘that’s the plan’. If your house is burning and you’re pruning the garden... well, you know....

2) Achieve a Zen-like comfort with being behind

The first step to realizing you must prioritize is becoming comfortable with being behind in some areas for a carefully managed period of time. I'll repeat that last part:

For a carefully managed period of time.

As a business leader, I am responsible for achieving results. I am not allowed to ignore one area simply because I was focused on another. So, that means I must clock how long I can afford to focus on margin management before I shift my attention to revenue growth. Like a performer spinning plates, I can leave one rotating on its own for a while, just not too long, or SMASH!

DO: List your targets and determine a timeframe within which you must cycle back around to review each. While working on growth, give it 90% of your energy. But be ready to shift when talent development must be your aim. 

DON’T: Let this become a schizophrenic ‘run around with your hair on fire’ panic. This process is all about moving the needle on the focused metric of the day/week/month. You aren’t doing this to create the mere appearance that you’re attending to what matters most. You must actually see a result improve.

3) Recognize The Need To Communicate Up and Down

While managing dozens of competing priorities and choosing what to focus on at any given time, it’s extremely important that a manager lets everyone around them know their strategy.

A perfectly executed list of prioritized metrics and follow up plans isn’t always enough to satisfy nervous senior executives or unaware direct reports and field or unit operators. They need to know what’s in your head. Just because you know where you’re headed doesn’t mean your boss does. She may feel reassured knowing that while you’re focused on fixing the under performing distribution center in Arizona that you’re aware of the poorly trending conversion rates of the call center in Florida and that you will be attending to it within the next week. Since you’ve prioritized your mole whacking sequence, be sure the important stakeholders around you have clarity on the plan for varmint dispatching.

DO: Bring your team into discussions about what metric or target should be our next focus. They will often give you valuable additional perspective and they’ll be more bought in to the plan for improvement.  

DON’T:  Come up with a flavor of the month and continue to 're-announce' our priorities every other week. This isn't a good way to run a business and your teams will tire of this quickly - worse, they won't know what to focus on when everything is being referred to as a 'number 1 priority'.

Contradiction Must Be Discussed In The C Suite

Finally, these concepts and realities MUST be a part of every company directive or annual operating plan which boards and C-suite leaders approve. There is no doubt, that as a senior leader in your organization, you have the authority to tell your worldwide team of 100,000 professionals to drop what they're doing and focus on metric #3 immediately. But, just because you can, should you?

Senior teams have the ability, due to their position and altitude within an organization, to see months or years further down the tracks than some of their employees. This is a wonderful benefit and a crucial tool that those high-level leaders must leverage. This telescopic vision often results in a C-suite leader giving a directive today which is meant to impact a result which will be felt three quarters from now. That leader means well, but unfortunately, they sometimes haven't thought about all three legs on the stool. When a CEO directs revenue growth for next year's first reporting quarter to set us up for that acquisition we've been planning, does that leader realize that the energy and focus required to generate that growth may equal higher turnover resulting in a staffing shortfall? If I lose 14% more people than I planned for in the next 3 quarters, how will I execute the revenue plan and set up the acquisition? What other unfavorable impacts will this destabilization of my stool have on my business? This C-level leader is in danger of growing one of the legs on his stool at the detriment of the other two.

It's mind-boggling how often this happens at organizations and how little cause and effect is discussed when a operating plan is approved. 12 months from now, that same senior team will be in meetings morning to night, trying to figure out why their comp revenue is down 2% and their best talent is leaving. The irony, of course, is that they may have unwittingly started the toppling of the very seat they were perched upon.

— Kimball Carr is a writer, owner and multi-unit leader with more than two decades of business experience across a wide array of sectors. He has produced work for print, film and the software world and has contributed his leadership to 3 of Fortunes best 100 companies to work for. As a consultant, he works with business and individuals and is currently the co-founder of Grom Coast Surf & Skate, an apparel brand and retail store built specifically for kids. —