I know an executive who has a forty-page list of personal action items. Not forty items, total, on his to-do list. Forty pages, single-spaced, in a bound notebook. I have had professional dealings with this leader and I can tell you from personal experience that while he is a terribly busy man with a lot to do, he gets absolutely nothing done. He does not follow up on the most basic tasks, like returning phone calls or responding to e-mails. He cannot be counted on to deliver an outcome on anything. He tries to do everything, yet he accomplishes nothing. He is in a position of real power and his organization suffers greatly for his complete lack of focus. He has failed to adhere to that most fundamental yet important leadership principle: simplify and prioritize.
Simplifying and prioritizing starts with each of us as individual leaders. If we don't know what we are trying to accomplish in our own jobs, then there is no chance that the teams we lead will be any better focused.
In a recent interview the CEO of Continental Airlines, Lawrence Kellner, was asked how he manages his time. He replied, "I used to have a long, long to-do list. At the end of the day, I'd see which ones got done. Then five more notes might be on my desk, and I'd throw them on the list. I realized I was often doing what came to me as opposed to what was really important. So I started saying, 'O.K., what are the three most important things I need to do today?' And if No. 1 is a 12-hour task, then I'll spend the day working on it. I need to decide what's the most value-added thing I can do." In short, Kellner succeeded in taking charge of his professional life by proactively prioritizing his efforts, rather than simply reacting to whatever was in front of him. How well do you practice this skill as a leader?
Once we have our own priorities in order, the next task involves making sure our organizations and teams know what their priorities need to be. Again, Kellner is a model of good leadership in this regard. He says, "When I became CEO, I started ending each of my three most important meetings each month by saying, 'O.K., here are the three most important things we're doing. Here are the three priorities." His followers at Continental were no doubt grateful to him for explaining in clear and concrete terms exactly what he expected of them.
Great leaders instinctively understand that their teams are looking to them to identify just a small handful of key objectives, three or four at the most, and to communicate those objectives effectively. William Green is the chairman and chief executive of Accenture, the global consulting, technology services and outsourcing company. Green relates a story about how he was able to simplify things for a group of brand new employees: "I once sat through a three-day training session for new managers. I counted 68 things we told them they needed to do to be successful. And I got up to close the session, and I said there are three things that matter. The first is competence… The second one is confidence… The third thing is caring…" From 68 things to three. Again, this group of Accenture managers surely appreciated their chief's willingness to help them prioritize in their jobs, and in their leadership journey.
Cristobal Conde is the president and CEO of SunGuard, a software and IT services company, and he was notorious early in his career for micromanaging and making every decision himself. He soon realized the futility of this approach. He recalls, "That was in the early 90s, and that experience convinced me that the right way to do it is the opposite, which is to hold people accountable, to really restrict the number of things you say to them, and to decide the one or two things that are most important. You have to do that consistently over a year before you start having an impact." Indeed, it takes time to hammer a message home, but if it is simple and consistent, people will eventually respond and deliver.
Alan Mulally has been the president and chief executive of Ford Motor since 2006, and has led that company to extraordinary levels of achievement and value creation in an incredibly challenging time for the auto industry. Mulally is another leader who stays focused on a few key objectives. He says, "I've moved to a place where I'm really focused on four things. I pay attention to everything, but there are some things that are very unique to what I need to do as a leader. One of them is this process of connecting what we're doing to the outside world… A second focus for me is: What business are we in? What are we going to focus on? The third one is balancing the near term with the longer term… And then I really focus on values and standards… I'm the one who needs to focus on those four things, because if I do that, the entire team will have an understanding of them."
Albert Einstein once said, "Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius- and a lot of courage- to move in the opposite direction." The best leaders have an uncanny ability to simplify what is complex. They know what is truly important and what is not. They can identify the most critical challenges before them and prioritize those challenges so as to maximize their precious time. And they communicate these simple priorities to their team, again and again, in a way that helps people know how to direct their own efforts and to achieve results. Great leaders are incredibly adept at simplifying and prioritizing.