Identifying and Focusing on What Matters

June 7, 2022 Butler Newman

I recently came across a statistic that shows how rudderless most workers really are: Only about half of employees strongly agree that they know what is expected of them at work.

The problem is worse than the implications of this statement. In fact, Harvard Business Review found that 60% of managers did not know or could not describe the work their teams do.

At the heart of this problem is the lack of a clear understanding of employees and their managers of what should be their focus. What are the few areas, among the dozens of tasks, that should garner their complete attention? Which ones add value for the organization and deliver true impact through their role?

The hybrid/virtual workplace has exacerbated this challenge. It's all too easy for employees to go from task to task and think they are being productive. Then, at the end of the day, even though employees are exhausted, they often wonder what they have accomplished.

This ‘lack of meaningful accomplishment’ contributes to feeling disconnected. Both create a feeling of isolation in a time when people need to feel connected. Employees long to understand how what they do and how they spend their time contributes to the company’s purpose.

The antidote to these challenges is being deliberate in identifying and creating clarity around those few things that matter most.

Define What an Exemplary Job Looks Like

Amazingly, the counter measure already exists within each organization. As leaders, we must step back from the chaotic daily pursuits and identify those people within the organization who are performing well above the average. Then we must pause to deeply consider the work of these top performers. 

Without exception, top performers think of their work and role differently than average performers. It is not always obvious, even to them, but how they choose to focus their time carries a powerful lesson.

In my work at Blanchard, I help companies discover how exemplars approach their work and why that is important to their success.

The result of this diagnostic work identifies and codifies five to seven outcomes that define the critical focus of any role. The diagnostic is effective with exemplar performers in sales, project management, product management, frontline operations, finance, and research. It is also effective in providing focus for frontline leaders, their managers, and their directors. The approach can extend to the executive level.

What does an outcome typically look like?

Outcomes are tangible. While a set of competences is required to produce outcomes, outcomes themselves are not competencies. They are the product of the effective use of competencies and are always steeped in the context of the work. It is this second notion that is critically important, for the fact that someone may possess a particular competency or set of competencies does not necessarily lead to demonstrated competence in performing a given role.

Neither do outcomes spring from preferred personality types. For example, a simple outcome such as “A Trusted Relationship” is not dependent on a personality type. Someone who is predominately extroverted will likely accomplish this outcome in a manner that is completely different from someone who is predominately introverted. Both can be quite successful in producing the outcome of A Trusted Relationship, however.

After performing hundreds of outcome diagnostics, one interesting phenomenon that has emerged is that outcomes are typically an integration of technical competency with human interaction. For exemplars, it is not a question of solely achieving technical competence or solely building strong relationships. The most powerful outcomes are the byproduct of both.

As an example: We recently conducted an outcomes diagnostic at a financial institution on top performing senior auditors. Obviously, their work is very precise. Technical competence is table stakes to become a senior auditor. What we uncovered, however, is that the thing that set exemplars apart was how they interacted with business leaders whose organization they were auditing. They went out of their way to set context for the business leaders and coach them on developing a productive mindset around the audit results. One of their outcomes was “A Business Leader Engaged in Positive Corrective Actions.” It is easy to imagine the powerful impact this outcome produces for that financial institution.

Why is understanding an outcomes focus important to you as a leader? Exemplars are typically seven to ten times more effective than the average employee doing the same role. That’s a remarkable statistic. Smart leaders will want to equip everyone on their team to focus on the proven outcomes of exemplars. In doing so, you also increase the connectedness and engagement of every person on your team.

Uncovering and capturing exemplar outcomes is a well-established and proven method for creating clarity and understanding priority in any given role. Whether or not you take an outcomes diagnostic approach, there are three questions every leader should be asking as we enter the post-pandemic era:

  1. Are you clear on the what and the why that should be your employees’ focus?
  2. Are your people clear on the few important areas of their work that add disproportionate value?
  3. As a leader, are you clear on are the most important outcomes in your role?


About the Author

Butler Newman

Butler Newman is Vice President, Client Solutions for Blanchard®. He is responsible for leading collaborative, client-focused teams to meet and exceed client expectations through powerful and engaging learning experiences and initiatives.

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