How to decide what to focus on as an executive?

As you become an executive in an organisation of 100+ people, the defined aspects of the role diminish significantly from what they were as an individual contributor or a team lead. Your effectiveness as an executive largely hinges on your ability to discern where to place your focus. Attention is the ultimate scarce resource, and my goal with this essay is to lay out a framework for thinking how to allocate that resource.

Part I: Focusing on improvements

A key part of the job of being an executive is to identify and then execute on organisational improvements within your domain of responsibility. Effectively, either changing what you do, or how your do it in an attempt to improve outcomes.

I’ve found two methodologies to be particularly useful for being systematic about finding improvements areas: analytical system optimisation, and system transformation. They provide two separate lenses on finding what to even try to improve. These methods certainly aren’t mutually exclusive, and actually best used together sequentially for example as part of a weekly or monthly routine.

Method #1) Analytical system optimisation

The premise here is to approach your role as if you were a management consultant assigned to your own team. Start from the premise of what are you optimising for, and then break that down into sub components with the aim of finding the weakest link. For example, if your goal as a VP of Sales is to increase the amount of new business generated, you might want to review the components that form the sales funnel. These would include things like sales velocity, conversion from each stage to the next, average deal size, and average number of deals per sales rep. The idea would be to evaluate which metric seems to be the weakest link (for example compared to SaaS benchmarks, or trend analysis), pulling down the outcome.

In every case, there are multiple possible culprits. Continuing the VP of Sales example, you might find that there’s a challenge in all teams moving from the first meeting with a prospective customer to a stage where you discuss commercial terms. This might indicate that either the meetings aren’t persuasive enough (which could be due to lack of skills or poor enablement material) or the product demonstration doesn’t address the key pain points faced by the target audience. A very different finding would be that actually the challenge isn’t global, but instead a specific team or a market has poor results. In this case the intervention should focus on the individuals or processes within that particular team.

The power of this methodology multiplies with compounding. Popularised by the British cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford as marginal gains, the idea is that while improving one thing by 1% might not feel significant, when you do that every week for two years, you’ve effectively doubled your results. Approaching this through the lens of analytic system optimisation allows you to decide where you should start this process – which area of focus will most likely yield best results. Done effectively, you should certainly expect much better improvements for each intervention than 1%.

Method #2) System transformation, a.k.a 10x thinking

If the first method was about rigorous analysis of (typically) incremental improvements within the system, the “10x thinking” encourages you to think bigger and change the underlying system itself. You start with the same premise of crystallising what are you optimising for, but instead of drilling down to the key drivers, you ask yourself “what would it look like if we were to 10x the results?”. This forces you to search for the levers that have the “space” to scale up in a non-linear fashion.

Imagine you’re VP of Customer Success, with the main objective of improving Net Revenue Retention. Using the 10x thinking method could take several forms here. Either you could focus on the ultimate goal (ie. NRR) or any of its leading indicators. To be more concrete, you could ask yourself: “what would the world have to look like in order for us to have an NRR of 110%“, or alternatively “what would need to be true for the value of new investments by our existing customers (ie. upsells) to increase by 10x”.

In either case mere system optimisation, such as a small improvement in the onboarding process, is unlikely to be enough. You’re forced to search for answers that change the underlying system. For example, perhaps changing the way you productise and price the offering would yield opportunities to increase investments manyfold as the customer gains more value. Or perhaps you’re able to segment your customers in a completely new way that allows you to match their respective service needs more accurately, driving their desired outcomes.

Given that the 10x interventions aren’t usually grounded in a data based analysis, evaluating the various alternative routes can be tricky. In addition, since larger changes of the system are inherently less reversible, they can be more risky. This is why it’s usually best to run a more limited pilot first to gather some evidence of whether it’s beneficial or not. For example, before introducing a new role, perhaps an existing employee is able to do a hybrid role for a specific time period with very specific learning objectives.

Part II: Focusing on people

As an executive you’re most likely serving multiple people as a manager. While this may be obvious, if they’re successful, then so are you. Your entire organisation consist of people. The more you’re able to help them thrive and remove their road blocks, the more positive your impact. This is why it makes sense to allocate a good portion of your time directly on people, even if it doesn’t come up as a clear improvement area in Part I.

Specifically, I’ve found three areas to be particularly good targets of attention when it comes to focusing on your fellow humans.

#1 – Aligning people

One of the common pitfalls for growing organisations is misalignment between people or teams. This might manifest itself as people running into different directions, having a very different view of a particular situation, or lack of collaboration.

While sometimes these misalignments may be triggered by poor incentive structures, more often they are rooted in lack of trust and poor communication. Correspondingly, the best way for you as an executive to prevent these from occurring is to facilitate trust building and improve the flow of communication.

One way to achieve this is seeking to understand what people within and adjacent to your team are thinking of working on and why. Aim to find any potential areas of conflict, or conversely, collaboration. Then connect individuals with each other to exchange ideas and pursue joint efforts.

Another way to improve communication flow is to facilitate opportunities for people to exchange their current priorities and challenges together with their counterparts from other teams – both to build trust and assist with sharing inputs. When people have the same input, it’s much more likely that they’ll also reach the same conclusions.

# 2 – Supporting people with structured thinking

When you’re an executive, it’s almost certain that the people you work with most are highly experienced and smart individuals who don’t need coaching in the traditional sense. Instead, as advocated in Quiet Leadership, your job is to help them think through their own challenges as a sounding board.

Even when the temptation to jump into solution-mode is strong, the more you’re able to hold yourself back and empower people to find new ways of thinking, the more independent you’ll find them becoming. Powerful questions are the key to unlocking new depths people might otherwise not perceive.

To make this more concrete, imagine that someone in your team approaches you due to a challenging situation with a customer in their region. First, you might verify whether they’d like to use yourself as a sounding board for exploring alternatives (permission). Then you might ask how far have they thought through the alternatives? Which inputs lead them to think this way? What might be the potential gaps in their thinking? What have they done to better understand the root causes? Great questions will help them see the issue from a new angle and expose potential action points that you couldn’t even have suggested.

More generally, it useful to also add structure to any decision making and problem solving situations. This includes things like understanding what’s our goal here, what are the root causes, and what are the expected values of our alternative paths (probability of outcome x it’s payout). Doing this consistently will help with elevating the level of conversations and decision making across the board.

# 3 – Enhancing intrinsic motivation

Supporting someone to think or act more effectively doesn’t help if they don’t have a desire to improve. Motivation is a force multiplier on talent, and can either boost someones output to new spheres or reduce it to zero.

Effectiveness = action effectiveness (intellectual capacity x motivation) x number of actions (effort capacity x motivation)

Simplistic formula for individual effectiveness

McClellands seminal ‘Human Motivation’ (1987) laid out drivers of motivation shared by all humans – achievement, power, social affiliation. More recent research popularised by people like Daniel Pink provide a complementary framework through the three elements of true motivation – autonomy (on tasks, time, team, and technique), mastery, purpose.

Reading through those psychological drives, it’s relatively clear how you can enhance the intrinsic motivation of those within your sphere of influence, but let’s lay out a few useful practices:

  1. Communicate the Why of decisions and changes clearly and upfront (á la Sinek).
  2. Include more people in making decisions and goal-setting, where relevant
  3. Use shared values as a guidepost for making hard decisions
  4. Leave enough space for people to find their way autonomously
  5. Provide positive and negative feedback in equal vividness and quantity to spur improvement towards mastery
  6. Create a safe space for trying new things, and facilitate learning from both wins and failures
  7. Make time to understand the individualised drivers of the people you work with and then “water” them
  8. Take full ownership and any incoming bullets on behalf of your team – never blame someone else for failures within your domain
  9. Create a sense of “we” through language use and actions taken

But what if I don’t have time to allocate?

It’s natural to have periods when your calendar gets filled by other people without any time left for the proactive allocation into areas discussed above. However, if this becomes the new normal, it means you’re at the mercy of luck and external forces in terms of whether you’re actually spending any time where it matters – focusing on system or people improvements.

In my experience, when I’ve found myself not having had any proper output during a day despite doing something all day, it’s because I’ve succumbed to distraction. The two most common sources, unsurprisingly, are Slack and email. While being able to focus deserves an entire post, allow me to introduce a few things have been helpful. First, removing any notifications on both mobile and desktop is a must – at the very least during my focus work periods. Second, making sure I block actual time slots in the calendar for any deep work sessions. Third, I find going full screen with whatever I’m working on to really help with staying focused. I’ve previously used pomodoro timers and listened to the same song on repeat, but found that to somewhat add unnecessary tension instead of facilitating a relaxed focus mode.

But, you might ask, what if the calendar is essentially hijacked and filled with meetings or administrative work from dawn until dusk – most of which isn’t serving either the system or people improvement focus areas? In all honesty, I’ve not yet been in this situation for a sustained period, but I’d probably aim to understand the root causes driving the busy work. As my friend likes to say, quoting Sanford Meisner: “That which hinders your task is your task”. If you can’t be productive because of too many unproductive meetings, then your task is to find a way to diminish them or make them productive. If you find all of your time spent on internal reporting, then your task is to validate if all that work is truly required, or finding a way to automate (or delegate) the workload.

Mastery & unfocusing

To be clear, despite years of practice I consider myself a complete novice in aiming attention effectively. That being said, having a framework does support with planning a more fruitful week, as well as assessing whether I’ve had one. This basically enables the human version of reinforcement learning – do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

Finally, at least for me it’s been helpful to recognise that not all attention should even be “allocated”. In order to stay creative our brains need a balance of focused and diffused attention, so it’s actually beneficial to have periods of aimless mind wandering, having a laugh over a funny story, or being present to random sensations while walking outdoors. Yes, you’ve got a permission to just “chill”. You’re welcome.

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