A number of years ago I worked for a mid-sized family owned business that had been around for over 60 years. They had grown from a small “pop-and-son” manufacturing company to an organization with close to 300 employees and Fortune 5 clients. They were a model of small business success.
Then, almost as quickly as the company grew it began to shrink. The Great Recession hit and one-by-one customers began scaling back orders, and in short order we had a cash flow crisis every two weeks as we struggled to make payroll and keep suppliers paid.
From a career standpoint this was one of the greatest learning opportunities of my life. I learned all aspects of the business management process, primarily that cash is king when an organization falls on hard times. In fact, if you look at small business failure statistics you’ll find that the reason most small businesses fail, at least why they end up having to shut the doors, is because they run out of cash.
What I also learned during this process is where you focus will dictate where you go, to which you’re probably saying, “no duh!”. Let me expand on what I mean by this.
Where’s your focus?
We have only three places to put our focus. The past, present, or the future. I knew the end was closing in on the business when the president of the company began spending time on the production line with a welding hood on standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his employees working to ship product so we could get paid and meet customer, payroll, and supplier commitments.
His intentions were genuine, and I could see he wanted to show the employees working beside him he was dedicated to meeting shipment deadlines crucial to the short-term success of the business, but is this where a company president should have been focusing his efforts solely on today’s needs to get work done? I would argue it’s absolutely the wrong place for the president of a company to focus and here’s why-the higher up the organizational ladder you sit, the more you should be focused on the future, not the present or past.
If you’re a senior leader and you spend most of your day focused on today and little time on tomorrow, you haven’t hired the right people, and / or you have a trust issue to deal with if you want to take the business to the next level.
If you don’t spend time today doing something to get better at what you’re going to do tomorrow, you won’t exist tomorrow.
Evaluating your current focus.
The purpose in writing this post is to help you evaluate where your focus is today. Are you focusing on what matters most to winning tomorrow? One simple exercise to evaluate your focus is to examine where you are spending your time over the course of a typical week.
This doesn’t have to be overly complex. Simply track what you’re doing in 1-2 hour increments throughout the day. Then evaluate what you were doing by categorizing it in one of three categories that include 1) past, 2) present, or 3) future. After you have a few days of data you will be able to see what percent of your time is spent in each category.
With your data collection complete, the next question becomes should I do something different? Am I spending too much time focusing where I shouldn’t? There is no perfect formula that will provide this answer, but the further up the organizational chain you are the more time you should be focused on the future. Your job isn’t about getting today’s work done (that’s what you have direct reports for), it’s about determining where today’s work should be focused to help you win tomorrow.
The best way to predict the future is to create it.