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Leaders know what matters

‘Attention is the chief bottleneck in organizational activity, and the bottleneck becomes narrower and narrower as we move to the top of organizations,’ noted Herbert Simon.

Leaders establish what the organization needs to be paying attention to. They communicate the things that really matter – or the things they think really matter – in a personal and inspirational way. Without this level of focus, any leadership role can quickly become overwhelming.

‘The communications and actions of CEOs reflect their attentional focus and help drive the culture and activities of the firm. Indeed a key strategic role of the CEO is to focus the attention of employees across alternative operations eventually driving them toward activities that are vital for the survival and growth of the firm,’ says London Business School’s Rajesh Chandy.

Modern organizations are large and complex. A CEO might have hundreds of thousands of employees looking to him or her for guidance, inspiration, direction and much more. Their days are packed with meeting after meeting, decision after decision, journey after journey.

What is amazing is how many survive and how they retain their focus on what matters to themselves and their organization. The best leaders know what matters and apply it to everything they do.

‘The job of CEO has changed over the time that I’ve been CEO,’ Tim Brown, CEO of the design company IDEO told us:

I have a set of four things in my mind, and the amount of time I spend on each of them varies across months and years. One of them is just making sure that the thing is ticking over, and we’re not doing anything stupid. That’s the least important of them. The next is a connecting to the organization, mostly for me to learn, but then also to connect. The third one is getting the IDEO message out into the world, and what we care about, what I care about personally. And then the fourth one is thinking about the future, where are we going.

There is nothing complicated in this. Tim Brown also told us that every year he tried to write down what he was going to hold himself accountable for and what he expected some other people to hold him accountable for.

Similarly, the CEO of GE, Jeff Immelt, talks of taking time out every weekend to review his previous week and his agenda for the forthcoming week. It is a simple process of taking stock.

Holding yourself to account is important. David Pyott, former CEO of Allergan (which brought the world Botox) also talked about the importance of setting an agenda:

In a lot of management (and particularly at the top), people don’t step back often enough and ask, ‘What is the agenda?’ versus ‘What is the agenda that other people have made for you?’. You can become a slave of the organization. All the time I’m trying to say, what are the key things – probably five things – that we must get done? I’m very keen on making the appropriate agenda and being willing to change it.

Pyott talked about his early days as CEO:

When I came to Allergan, after about three weeks I wrote down on a piece of paper what I thought were the five most important things that I had to do. Then I put it in a drawer and didn’t take it out again until four or five months later. Of the five things I’d written down, four of them were right and one was completely off beam. That was quite refreshing. It was a matter of checking it out before you go and drive a truck over the edge of the cliff.

Such lists are a performance shorthand. Some take this a little further. Every evening the executive coach Marshall Goldsmith receives a call from a friend asking the same questions. Some are about looking after himself and his health. Others are about looking after others. All are important.

There is, of course, the temptation to assume that such lists are trite and superficial. They may well be, but they are also very simple and memorable tools to help you identify what you value, what is important and how your daily activities are helping towards a clearly stated objective.

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