Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer and poet said

“Concentration is the secret of strength in politics, in war, in trade, in short, in all the management of human affairs.”

Like Emerson, I have long believed that a clear focus is one of the critical elements for success.

I am an admirer of Malcolm Gladwell, British-Canadian author who in his book “Outliers” talks about the fact that to become an expert at something you need to spend 10,000 hours of practice to reach the highest levels of competency (see “First secret of success” posted September 16, 2010). His examples include Bill Gates and Scott McNeally founders of Microsoft and Sun Microsystems respectively who were fortunate enough to get to start their time at university at the same time as interactive computing had arrived, enabling them to put in their 10,000 hours of practice long before they launched their business endeavours in information technology. Previously students had had limited access to the university mainframes via batching their work, and hence would have found it hard to accumulate their 10,000 hours of practice. His other examples include Tiger Woods whose father Earl introduced him to golf at the age of 2. “Tiger” first broke 80 at the age of 8 and broke 70 on a regulation golf course at the age of 12. During his youth, his father made him practice his golf for at least 2 hours every day, and by the time he turned professional in 1996 at the age of 21, he had been playing and practising his golf for a lot more than 10,000 hours.

Author: Kris Krüg; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Kris Krüg; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I accept that just practising for 10,000 hours is not necessarily enough to become an expert, as I know people, for example, who have been in management roles for more than 10,000 hours and who appear to have learned very little about managing people in that time, but I do believe that focussing on doing something well is a critical starting point for success.

As I do strongly believe that focus and concentration are keys to success, I now find it somewhat worrying that not many managers I meet appear to exhibit these qualities, most of them finding that today’s market conditions make it hard for them to do so.

I recently spent some time on some executive coaching with a senior VP of a large company whose boss had suggested to him that he could do with having some sessions with a personal coach. I spent a two hour session with him in his office and found it interesting to see him fidget and move from one task to another without focussing on what we were both there to try and achieve. We had had a previous session away from his office and he had been somewhat more focussed, although he did sneak regular looks at his smartphone during our discussions, to the point where I eventually walked over to him, picked it up off the arm of his armchair, and popped it into his briefcase. I prefer most sessions to be away from the office, but I do find it worthwhile to observe “my charges” for some time in their actual work environment. During our session, he found four reasons to get up and pass some tasks to his personal assistant (all of which he adamantly justified because of their urgency), and he also couldn’t resist taking surreptitious, if somewhat guilty, looks at his PC every time that a “ping” would alert him to the arrival of a new email. I find this obsession with email being accorded the right of immediacy to be one of the biggest killers of successful time management, and hence focus, today (see “Fifth secret of time management” posted November 11, 2010). We are working specifically now on trying to get him to focus more on the key elements of his management responsibilities that are significantly more critical to his success than his ability to handle emails and practice timesharing to an illogical extreme.

He is not alone, and I come across many executives who are so busy trying to do so many things at once, that they have lost sight of what they need to really focus on to be successful.

I find a similar lack of focus in many managers in small companies, when deciding on a business strategy.

There is so much apparent opportunity out there that one can address today, but the skill for a small business is to understand where to deploy the resources needed to be successful, remembering that unless you are backed by Croesus (King of Lydia from 560-547BC, who was so rich that he would have every guest depart with as much gold as they could carry), you can’t afford to be everywhere, and be all things to all people, at once. I have worked with companies who have only just scratched the surface of their home market, but who want to talk to me about moving into the US and Chinese markets overnight, simply because of their size and market hype on opportunities that exist there. Yes, they are large markets, and yes they are potentially great opportunities, but I have seen too many really good small European companies rush into the US or Asian markets too early, spend an inordinate amount of money and resources doing so, and after a couple of years come slinking back with their tails between their legs, blaming bad luck. However I have always liked the definition of good luck as being when preparation and opportunity meet.

Source: Beata Lejman; PD-Art license; via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Beata Lejman; PD-Art license; via Wikimedia Commons

Scott McNeally called it “putting all the wood behind one arrow”. The key to real success is to focus on the critical tasks that are needed to be successful and to concentrate on doing them well, no matter how many attractive, attention getting shiny baubles pop up to tempt us. Only once these are mastered can one move on to the preparation needed to now include the ability to focus on new opportunities.

Author: Pearson Scott Foresman; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Pearson Scott Foresman; via Wikimedia Commons

Anthony Robbins, American self-help author quite rightly said

“Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives”.