Not unlike many new entrepreneurs, there was a time early in my career when I found myself surrendering my focus to whatever seemed new and exciting, or to whatever I was doing most recently. Anytime someone asked if our team could do something, the answer was, “Yes!” I wanted to build business, as long as they would pay for it, even if it was far removed from our core competencies.
I let my focus drift and I stopped asking myself where we were going and what was truly important, until one day our company had seven different business units with none of them properly staffed or funded.
Eventually, my chief operating officer, Paul, sat me down and said something I’ll never forget: “My fear for you isn’t that you won’t have success. It’s that you will look up and realize that the organization you created isn’t what you actually wanted.”
I knew Paul was right. I had let my focus drift. “What should we do?” I asked Paul. He said, “We need a first filter.”
A first filter is a guiding question that we can use to vet every idea, possibility, dream, and strategy to determine whether it will move us in the right direction or misdirect our focus.
That year, our first filter became: Is it driving revenue in the business we want to grow?
To arrive at that filter, we challenged ourselves to answer four key questions. Part 1 of this article series explores the first two questions – “What do we want?” and “What do they need?” – and I encourage you to apply these questions to your own assumptions of your personal and professional direction:
Question 1: What Do We Want?
If you know what you want, you will selectively attend to the opportunities throughout your life that take you in that direction. Like a sailboat pointing to a location on the horizon line, you may tack with the wind, but you will continue to move steadily toward your chosen destination. With this focused mindset, you have a filter for all your daily interactions: the friend you just met can offer strategic insight and connections rather than simply casual conversation. The podcast you listen to during your workout can provide some personal development time or help solve a strategy question, rather than simply voiding the silence.
“To find yourself, think for yourself.”
When you know where you want to go, your daily rhythms and relationships have focus and intentionality. This dynamic of selective attention has a bigger impact than even the active choices we make to move our career forward. It dictates what our eyes see, our ears hear, and our minds process at any moment given the nearly infinite options available.
Asking and answering “What do I want?” every day is the only way for leaders to steer a course through an ever increasing amount of distractions. In a 2018 article “How CEOs Use Time” published in the Harvard Business Review, researchers of a 12-year study on CEO schedules outlined the number and complexity of decisions CEOs face daily on how to allocate their most precious resource: time.
“The way CEOs allocate their time and their presence—where they choose to personally participate—is crucial, not only to their own effectiveness but also to the performance of their companies. Where and how CEOs are involved determines what gets done and signals priorities for others,” states the authors.
The article adds that any leader’s schedule – not just the CEO’s – sends a powerful message to the organization about what matters.
So, “What Do I want?” is first and foremost a personal question each individual must ask of him or herself, as it drives the movements of the day, as noted above. But as a business leader, you are also tasked with asking the collective version of this question – “What does my team want? What does my organization want?” – which can shape the priorities of the organization.
It can feel risky to ask your employees what they really want (they might answer, “I want to be the boss.”) But what makes the question so powerful when you sincerely ask it of your team is that it gives them the chance to really consider it. Often, simply knowing what they want signals how you value them, and inspires loyalty. You can help them connect the dots between what they are doing now, and the larger mission. You can find out where they’d like to be, and see if there is a way to help them arrive at their goals, individually and as a team.
So, take a moment to ask, “What do I want?” and then, take the time to ask your team.
Question 2: What Do They Need?
This is an operational question that applies to audiences both inside and outside of your company, including your team and customers. “They” are the ones you report to – boss, board members, investors, customers – as well as those who report to you.
First ask yourself, “What does our team need to succeed?” Am I equipping or distracting them?
“What do those above me need?” As leaders, we need to filter the answer through our own wisdom and experience. Not everything the boss throws at us is useful, and it’s our job to communicate and prioritize.
“What does our customer need?” If you are considering whether to grow, start, or shut down a product or business line, it is crucial to ask “Is there a real demand for this?”
Continually in our work, we see organizations large and small that have grown blind to the strategic business areas that are no longer satisfying the first filter questions of “What do we want?” or “What Do They Need?” They either fail to evolve, or they evolve too quickly and “innovate” away from successful strategies or products.
The teams that are most successful are continually refining their understanding of client and customer needs by asking them regularly.
And internally, these teams have leaders who guide them to question routinely the focus of their work. What do we want to achieve? What work truly matters?
When is the last time you pondered the needs and desires of your team? Of your customers or clients? If not recently, it’s time to stop and ask.
In Part 2 we will explore the final two questions that shape the first filter to help steer the focus of your organization.