Why leaders must learn to say no

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Written by Ray McGrath on 22 May 2014 in Features
Features
Leaders can achieve more by focusing on a small number of high-impact goals, Ray McGrath says 
Ambitious and creative by nature, most leaders find it virtually impossible to walk away from good ideas or turn down opportunities.
 
Instinctively, those at the highest levels always want to do more – after all, this characteristic is often one of the reasons they came to hold their position in the first place.
 
Their hunger to achieve new goals – and pursue them simultaneously - can be particularly strong in situations like we’re facing now, namely an upturn in the economy which leaders are eager to take full advantage of.
 
However, while well-intended, it’s an approach that’s usually doomed to fail.  The associated lack of focus generally leads to confusion amongst teams who struggle to combine additional goals with the ‘business as usual’ activities that keep their organisations running.
 
Without doubt, leaders under-estimate the force represented by these competing everyday priorities at their peril. In fact it’s so strong that FranklinCovey has termed it the whirlwind and it will always win in a match against any enthusiastic leader armed with a long list of new strategic goals.
 
Less is more
Over the years, our research has shown that if teams focus on achieving just two or three goals beyond the day-to-day demands of the whirlwind, there’s a high likelihood they will succeed. However, those who set four to ten goals are unlikely to achieve more than one or two and in comparison actually accomplish less.
 
The simple reason for this is that when aiming for excellence, the human brain is hardwired to do one thing at a time and whilst a lot of people may claim to be good at multi-tasking they will usually find multiple activity compromises their performance on the primary task.
 
That’s not to say that they can’t focus on more than one priority, or goal, but it does mean they can only give one their best effort and attention at any one time.
 
So, the biggest challenge facing leaders – and an important consideration for L&D professionals looking to promote a culture of effective leadership - is saying no to a lot of good ideas. It may even mean rejecting some great ideas – something that’s counterintuitive for a leader and hard to accept. However, all the evidence shows that nothing is a bigger destroyer of focus than always saying yes.
 
Making the right choices
For those leaders putting their sharper focus into practice, their next challenge is to select the most important goals – FranklinCovey recognises their elevated status by calling them Wildly Important Goals (WIGs).
 
WIGs usually relate to improved financial or operational performance or achieving increased customer satisfaction and can originate from the whirlwind or outside it. 
 
From within, the WIG could be linked to rectifying a key operational issue or building on a strength. From outside, a WIG is often linked to re-positioning the organisation strategically, for example launching a new product or service to counter a competitive threat or seize an opportunity.
 
The choice of WIG may be obvious, but in some cases a leadership team may be faced with a number of options. In these situations the best question to ask is: “If every other area of our operation remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area where change would have the greatest impact?” 
 
If, having selected a WIG, there is still uncertainty about whether it’s the best choice, it’s important to take time to think about it before making the final commitment. Test it out by considering sub-goals and setting a clearly measurable result accompanied by a date by which the WIG must be achieved - after all, if a goal is wildly important a team should be able to tell whether or not it has been achieved.
 
Rolling out the goals
Once WIGs are defined, the best way to roll them out is to allow leaders of all the teams involved to define supporting WIGs (battles that will win the war) specifically for their teams. 
 
As well as leveraging the knowledge of the individual leaders, this approach creates greater engagement. That said, senior leaders should retain the right to veto them if they feel the battles chosen are not going to win the war. 
 
It’s also critical to balance the time and energy devoted to WIGs in relation to the day-to-day activities that make up the whirlwind. At least 80 per cent of the effort should continue to be spent sustaining or incrementally improving the whirlwind. The closer this figure gets to 100 per cent, the greater the risk of the WIGs not being achieved because of a lack of focus.
 
Additional disciplines
Focusing on the wildly important is the number one principle when it comes to achieving new goals that will drive improved organisational performance.
 
As teams work to achieve their goals, three other principles, which FranklinCovey calls disciplines of execution, come to the fore. The first of these relates to the use of a set of lead measures that show progress towards achieving the goal (the lag measure) and enable the organisation or a team to adapt its tactics to give it the best chance of attaining its desired outcome. 
 
The next discipline involves maximising engagement by keeping a compelling scoreboard, often devised by the teams themselves, that members can relate to as they strive to achieve their WIGs. 
 
Last, but by no means least, is the discipline of accountability and the understanding that unless people hold each other accountable, the goal naturally disintegrates in the whirlwind.
By applying these four disciplines we’ve seen leaders and their teams stand firm in the face of the whirlwind and have a significant impact on their organisations by accomplishing their most important goals. 
 
Once achieved, these goals become part of the day-to-day operations, leaving leaders to set new ones by focusing on what’s most important and having the continued conviction to say no to everything else. 
About the author
Ray McGrath is practice leader for execution at FranklinCovey. For more information, visit http://www.franklincovey.co.uk

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