Balancing Your Focus

By Dan Bobinski


Dan-Bobinski

Heather came up to me at a recent conference to tell me a story. Seems that Heather has been a long-time employee with a well-known company. A few years ago, the department in which she works was “right-sized,” and Heather found herself assigned the workload of three people. Recently there was another shuffle, and lately Heather has been doing the work that seven people used to do. She’s logging 60-hour work weeks, and because her department has been spread so thin, customers are starting to complain that they’re not getting the same level of service they had before.

To top it all off, Heather recently got a new boss who was unfamiliar with all the changes that had taken place over the past few years. At Heather’s annual review, her new boss said, “The numbers are not looking good. The customer satisfaction scores in your department are dropping steadily. I’m rather disappointed, because I’ve heard so many good things about you.”

Heather cut off her boss before he could continue. “You’re disappointed? I’m disappointed!” She explained to him how the company used to have seven people doing the work that’s now assigned to her. She said, “You can’t ask one person to do in 40 or even 60 hours what seven people used to do in 280 and expect the same results.”

Her boss could not reply. Heather was right.

A laser focus on the bottom line can cause leaders to forget about all the details that must be in place for a bottom line to be solid. In other words, it’s easy for key decision makers at the top of an organization to look out over the business horizon and see forests, and forget about the interplay of the eco-system on the forest floor that must occur so that the forest can exist.

For decades now I have advocated that senior leaders take a week each year to work in front-line positions. Not a tour. Not an hour. Not a day. A week. Remember the show “Undercover Boss?” When that show first came out I felt like someone had picked up my idea and made it into a TV show. Why a week? Because it’s way too easy for important minutiae to get hidden or glossed over in a walk-though tour.

Do leaders act on this recommendation? Sadly, no. But I’ll concede that anything is better than nothing. The point I’m making is that if decision makers understand more about the inner workings of their organization, they will make better decisions for their company.

One obstacle that gets in the way of leaders taking time to get a more balanced perspective is their calendars tend to get really full. It’s understandable. Priorities must be managed and time to review the inner workings of one’s organization – or even one’s department – can get pushed off one’s plate. After all, rarely are any shareholders demanding to know what leaders have learned about what’s happening “on the shop floor.”

What’s my recommendation in all of this? Prioritize the balance. Good leaders need to keep one eye on the horizon, and one eye on what’s happening in their organization. One danger of the executive suite is spending too much time on either extreme. In the same way that it’s dangerous for leaders to micromanage the shop floor, it’s equally dangerous to ignore it altogether.

Heather told me her place of work used to be great. For many years the leaders of her company walked through the production plants and offices and talked with workers. But somewhere along the line they stopped coming through, and Heather felt like the company’s focus shifted from long-term growth to short-term profits. With that, decisions have been made that have left the company shortchanged.

A corporate advisor with the financial services company Piper Jaffray spoke with me about this on the condition that his name not be used. He underscored the fact that long-term planning is necessary for success, and that if plans don’t take everything into account, a leader is relying on hope. “That’s asking for trouble,” he said.

Brian Bartschi is a registered investment advisor with another national financial services company. He says, “It’s frustrating when companies set things up to look good for two or three quarters and then make a sudden announcement that something ‘went wrong.’”

Again, the key is striving for balance. Prioritize it. One way to do this is by scheduling specific time for it. For example, put it on your calendar to visit with the people who work in accounting. These folks are normally behind the scenes, but they often have amazing insights in to how things can be improved. If your organization has a sales force, go on a sales call with someone, and afterwards, ask the sales rep what kind of obstacles he or she regularly encounters. The same goes with the customer service reps and the production line.

You can visit anywhere in your organization and learn something to help you make better, more balanced decisions. The key to success in doing this is not to turn into a micromanager. The purpose of such visits should simply be to gather data.

Following that, be sure to calendar activities that help you collect data on the big picture, as well. Meet with other business leaders and get their take on what’s happening on the business horizon.

Heather’s story is just one example of untold thousands. She’s a loyal, dedicated employee who has been overburdened, her supervisor doesn’t think she’s doing a good job, and customers are unhappy. When her company’s leaders made the decisions that created that situation, was that their intended result? My bet would be no.

When managers and leaders take the time to be more balanced in how they collect information, better decisions are almost always the result.

Dan Bobinski is president of Workplace-Excellence.com and Everything-Training.com As a consultant, speaker, and trainer, he helps organizations of all shapes and sizes to help them create excellent workplaces. He is also the author of numerous books, including the best-selling “Creating Passion-Driven Teams.” Reach him at dan@workplace-excellence.com.