As part of our “Routes to the Top” articles for “The Actuary” magazine in July, August and September (still to be published), we’ve been speaking with senior leaders about their career paths and their suggestions for others who want to reach the same heights. One area that arose during our interviews was that of effectiveness, adding value and the power of focus.
There’s a lot that can be said against multi-tasking or juggling too many balls: these activities can make us frazzled from trying to concentrate on too many things at once and/or lead to our output being too fragmented to be of much value: too little too late. However, part of professional life is managing multiple conflicting priorities, and the reality is that we don’t have the luxury of being able to focus exclusively on one item or domain, or at least not for an extended period of time. Also, our natural human curiosity means we keep listening for the latest news and what’s trending, partly because of our collective fear of missing out.
The advice of the CEOs and MDs prompted me to reflect on focus over my own career, and think about a number of examples where previous bosses or colleagues have mentioned focus in their feedback to me. This post shares those examples, and my reflections on them, and hopefully will prompt you to reflect on your own careers to date, especially how and where you add value and whether you are applying effort in the right areas.
Overall, I personally particularly enjoy working on a range of things, partly because I relish the variety, and partly because it furthers collaboration, as it requires us to draw on the strengths of others to achieve a common outcome. In fact, as a leader, I enjoy working together with my teams, alongside them where possible – I view their success as my success, and this is an example of achieving things through others. This naturally requires a ‘breadth’ approach, relying on your team to take care of the specifics within their respective areas of responsibility and expertise.
Other reasons why I prefer a spread of projects are: (i) much of our work can have long cycles (for example, a multi-year product design, build, launch, and ongoing management), so doing only that project for years on end would be too indulgent and would mean a long time between each delivery, (ii) as some outcomes won’t be achieved, especially with exploratory or innovation-type projects, it’s a better risk mitigation strategy to diversify what you’re working on, and have more opportunities to identify winners, and (iii) projects can have natural delays, and to avoid extreme frustration for the team at these points, its better to have other items to switch attention to. I’ve found it’s better to have a few projects at each stage in the lifecycle, than bet everything on one plan.
An aside on shifting focus – while I believe we should be open to switching attention, especially when there is a natural lull, I very definitely don’t agree with changing plans regularly and frantically pivoting at a moment’s notice… I prefer a well-structured, deliberate approach, possibly because my ‘natural’ timeframe is quite long, so I prefer to ride out the storm rather than panic and take reactive measures which don’t fit the long-term strategy.
The first time I really became acutely aware of focus was when I was writing my actuarial exams, and I found I could concentrate for very long periods of time, to the extent that I would describe it as single-minded. I found it completely necessary as I was writing a number of papers concurrently but I knew that it would be for a limited time i.e. my overarching desire was to get them done. Yet, even within that focus, I was studying across different specialisms, which gave me some variety – and I appreciate that spread of knowledge today. I also remember giving advice to later actuarial students on just how important focus was e.g. avoiding distractions, setting aside specific time, sticking to your study schedule etc.
In one of my earliest roles, I recall my manager telling me to “focus on my own job” when we sat for a one-to-one and discussed how I was working with others in our department. I imagine the manager felt I’d been working too much with others and neglecting my own responsibilities… I remember being surprised by this stance as I’d consciously connected with my teammates, partly because I was interested in what the wider team worked on, partly to understand future growth opportunities within the department, and partly to build relationships with my new colleagues.
Regular readers may know what a fan I am of strategic thinking – I love the possibilities that strategy provides, effectively scenario plans of the future. Yet, I’m also a detail-oriented person, so I have an unusual (and sometimes confusing) blend of seeing the big picture but also wanting to dig into the specifics of how we’ll get there. I remember some heated exchanges with a strategy director around strategic plans for the upcoming three years. Many of the ideas were great, building on the competence of our company, and recognising the way the market was moving. Yet, whenever I probed deeper, I was never sure who would be driving each initiative, what budget it would require, and how it would be executed. I felt a focus on the specifics was important, yet the director argued that wasn’t the point of the strategy. Sadly, a few years later, many of the grand ideas had gone nowhere – what management consultants may call a failure of execution.
I learnt a further lesson about focus from another boss who tended to concentrate on the things other people saw, working hard to make those visible projects succeed and appear successful. The challenge was though that this effectively de-emphasised aspects that bubbled under the surface, but if they led to an issue, then it became a crisis. The leader would react badly, partly because he felt the issue embarrassed him in front of his seniors and peers, and he would challenge his team as to why he hadn’t been alerted to the emerging issue earlier.
My philosophy has been one of prevention rather than cure, using my training to spot emerging risks, and trying to address them before they metastasise. This has meant though that much of my effort was under the radar, as a good outcome is something you don’t see. Interestingly, although I wasn’t really conscious of it at the time, my approach has meant I worked in roles in complex parts of businesses, with more moving parts. But, by nature, these areas weren’t as popular or high visibility.
While I was in one of those complex roles, my manager didn’t like that I mentioned a long list of items my team was busy with. He told me that my team should focus on two or three things only, and do them well, rather than spread ourselves thin trying to cover more area. My ongoing discussions with him around this led me to conclude that what that business valued was high-profile soundbites delivered well, rather than quantity. In contrast, my personal philosophy was to do (say) ten things to 70%, rather than two things to A+ level, as I feel that the ten things are more valuable, even though less excellent and less newsworthy. When leading my own teams, I’ve felt that those who do well could do it in two ways: (i) exceptional delivery of a project or outcome, (ii) good delivery of multiple projects. And, someone who does multiple things exceptionally is a superstar.
Yet (ii) was not seen as a strong outcome within that business, so I began to adjust my approach as a leader, especially around communication, to simplify the messages, and use more storytelling. I definitely see why senior executives, with lots on their plates, want core messages or good news stories, packaged in a way that makes them easier to share and motivate to their stakeholders. I began to describe our approach in strategic themes, and attempted to fit each delivery into these themes, to show how they built up to the bigger picture. Another thing I observed was how that manager used every meeting he attended to form an impression i.e. he recognised that a number of the people attending a meeting would have limited other interaction with him, so he decided what he wanted the others to think about him, and tailored what he said in the meeting, responses he gave, and issues he raised to all align with his objective.
In conclusion, I think there is a lot of value in simplifying (focusing) your messaging for it to be widely heard and understood, but I don’t agree that you should work on only two or three things in a given measurement cycle. Given time, I think the minimalist approach will expose holes, which will then take more effort to address. One possible team-based approach could be to allocate specific areas to different individuals or sub-teams, and give them ownership to resolve challenges that arise. Devolving responsibility (rather than holding onto control) can help to share the load, and makes it easier to monitor and manage a large, complex business. And, it frees up capacity to work on the higher profile initiatives that will lead your business into the future.
In this article, I’ve set out some of the learnings over my career so far on the topic of focus. Do they resonate with you? Or, are there areas you disagree with? And, please share your personal tips that have helped you to maximise your output and impact. We’d love to hear them.