Be Not Distracted

I had some errands in town this morning, so I stopped in the local diner for breakfast. Nice, pleasant place with a good veggie omelet. Unfortunately today, it was not quiet. Twice, neighboring people took calls on their cell phone and loudly discussed the most personal of business, for the benefit and annoyance of the entire restaurant.

I now know quite a bit about “Jack”, the local car mechanic, and his personal financial situation, his financial relationship with his wife, the pending trade-in of his toolbox, how much it’s worth, how much his new one is going to cost, the delivery dates, his weekly payment, and on and on. This incredibly loud conversation itself became the conversation at a half-dozen other booths. And Jack was oblivious.

The other conversation was both briefer and more discreet, although I know when to go rob the person’s house today, as both he and his wife will be gone at a meeting.

All of this made me think back to my post last week about the spying scandal at Hewlett-Packard. I wonder just how much of the leaking that went on at HP was of this variety — not intentional, not malicious, just inadvertent. I wonder just how hard it really is to get extremely confidential information these days, without even really trying.

Wouldn’t the time and energy have been better spent on fixing the problems with the company?

But most of all, I wonder if Ms. Dunn and the others on the HP board spent a great deal of money, time, energy, and corporate focus on the silly witch hunt for the leakers. How much did it really matter if HP’s laundry was out in the open? How much did it really damage the company if people knew that the company board was concerned about the performance of the CEO and wanted to fix it? In reality, wouldn’t the time and energy have been better spent on fixing the problems with the company rather than the quixotic hunt for the source of the leaks?

This sends me back around to the whole issue of focus. The HP board was facing a major concern over company performance, and just like me in the diner this morning, they were distracted by another issue. It was an issue that may have seemed to matter at the time, but in reality, it was a sideshow. Someone, somewhere on the board or in the HP leadership chain should have said “hey wait, this isn’t the real issue, let’s get back to that”.

That is hard, though. Very hard. Keeping your focus on the main issues is both one of the main characteristics of great leaders, and lack of it is the downfall of many failed ones. George Bush is single-minded, and that gets some of his highest praise (not from me… but that’s another issue…). Bill Gates is excellent at it, something I’ve seen personally. And, in my experience, we all could use practice at it. I know I’m guilty of being easily distracted, more often than I’d like to admit.

You need to have a regular practice of asking yourself “am I focused on the right things?”

So how do you do it? You need to have a regular practice of asking yourself “am I focused on the right things?” You need to have some formal list of priorities (a “to-do” list on a yellow pad, an electronic task list, whatever) that is carefully ordered and regularly updated. And you need to encourage those around you to speak up and say “ahem… aren’t we supposed to working on this?” It takes hard work, diligence, and formal processes.

Not getting distracted will make you a better leader, and will benefit not only you, but the organization as a whole. Put this one at the top of your priority list.