Leading Change: How Focus Creates Sustainable Change

Leading Change, Camera Lens, Focus

You hear and read about it everywhere: if you want to create successful and sustained change in your company, it is important to be focused and to transfer that focus to your people and teams. In the turbulence of the daily business reality where situations change rapidly, in which you are easily swamped by different and changing demands, objectives, and challenges, it is not easy to create focus. Leaders who are able to create and maintain a good and shared focus are far more successful than those who aren’t! But what is a good focus?

There is a lot of misinterpretation about what ‘being focused’ actually means:

Focus is not about accomplishing your tasks; it is about accomplishing your vision!

A few weeks back I was asked by a CEO to facilitate his executive team meeting. He explained to me what he believed was the main challenge for his organization: “We have been very successful the past decades as a company especially because we knew our strong points. Our whole way of working was aimed at maximizing our strong points without letting ourselves be distracted by other stuff. By doing this we created two kinds of people: the ‘managers’ who managed our products; and the ‘sales entrepreneurs’ who managed our customers. Now we are faced with a changing market, and we are not capable of responding quickly enough to these changes. Our managers and sales entrepreneurs are both screaming for more focus from the top. But they actually mean: ‘do not disturb us with your change initiatives and let us focus on what we’re good at: making our products and selling these to our customers’. Apparently they do not see that this kind of focus is no longer helping us forward at all. In fact, we need to change our focus, instead of sticking to what we always did. And for this we do not only need management and entrepreneurship, but also leadership. Not only in the top, but on all levels in the organization. Leaders who are able to create a shared focus on a new way forward; who are able to align their people around this new focus; who are people, team, collaboration oriented, as much as product, efficiency, customer oriented.” 

The story of this CEO shows his interpretation of the required focus: the pressure to change and adapt demands a new focus. It demands a new focus based on looking forward, on knowing what we want to create together, on why this is important, and on the benefits we see. Focusing on the things we want to change, to create the company we want to become.

And yet, quite often when confronted with the need for change we see leaders proclaiming a focus, which is far removed from the focus described above. They describe a focus that is task oriented, short term oriented, focused on strengthening what we do today. Often a focus with a strong cost saving orientation, and less orientation on creating new value. A focus that is rather risk averse, not exploring possibilities for learning and growth.

In some business situations creating a focus aimed at ‘keeping and strengthening what we have got’ can be justified. However, most situations require leaders who create a different focus, one that aimes at creating successful and sustainable change.

Not easy! Most people seem to be able to live with a company focus that is keeping them inside known territory. If for instance we need to do more of the same in less time, raise the quality level of our product or service, or produce at lower cost; we seem to be able to deal with this. People will maybe not like the pressure that this company focus is putting on them, but they will go along with it. Up to the level that all energy and ideas are used and nothing is left. At that moment people reach the limit of what they believe is possible, feel numb and start acting unmotivated and uninspired. At that moment the company probably realizes that it needs to change more fundamentally, and that it will take a substantial amount of energy to do that. Energy that most people don’t have anymore at that moment!

Successful leaders create organizations that focus differently. In their organizations the focus is always aimed at the future, at how we see our desired future, at what we need to do differently to get there, at what we collectively gain when reaching it. At first they will encounter resistance and hesitation within the organization. Not so strange, because people are asked to get outside their comfort zones. The desired future is new and there is maybe uncertainty and a lack of confidence, so people will not easily follow. Nevertheless, successful leaders succeed in aligning their people around this focus. And by doing that they create energy instead of draining it! How do they do this? What specific traits do these leaders show? I observe the following recurring traits:

·       Their focus is aimed at the longer term, not short term

They have a longer term focus based on their vision of their company’s desired future. They link the company focus to this desired future. They share their vision actively and discuss it openly with the organization. They do not lose energy in focusing on short-term temporary improvements; they focus on creating sustainable results.

·       Their focus reveals a high level of personal alignment

They know their own qualities and weak points very well, as well as what they stand for. They act based on clear personal values and include these in their vision. Because of their high level of personal alignment, they explore different opinions with an open mind and feel no need to focus on themselves.  Their focus is always on creating the best company results, in line with these key values. Read more about Personal Alignment here.

·       Their focus arouses an eagerness among people

They pay special attention to the process of building a shared focus throughout the organization. For them focus is not just setting out tasks and actions. It is about creating a shared energy that drives us towards a common end result. They invite people to take part in defining the focus that is needed to create the desired future, and this builds motivation and commitment. 

·       Their focus is releasing smart energy

They are only interested in decisions and actions that will bring us closer to our destination. Even more, they are continuously challenging people to focus on the levers for change that will boost us forward, and not to focus on trivial things. They are allergic to ‘jumping to conclusions’ without knowing how it will bring us closer to our goal. But they are also allergic to procrastination and risk aversion when the way forward is to ‘experiment – learn – adjust’.

·       They are persistent in their focus 

They stick to the focus, even if results are not forthcoming at first sight. They show confidence and stay focused. This does not mean they will never change course, and will always rigidly keep following the initial plan. When they see that the vision will not be reached by maintaining the current focus, they are the first to shift focus. But as long as the focus is directing us towards the vision, they will keep this focus.

“The hardest thing when you think about focusing. You think focusing is about saying ‘Yes’. No. Focusing is about saying ‘No’.” – Steve Jobs

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Photo: Giovanna Faustini/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Aad is an international leadership advisor, change leader, senior leadership team facilitator, executive coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with executives and leadership teams internationally on three key topics: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and HRS’ services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization feel free to contact him here.

8 Comments on “Leading Change: How Focus Creates Sustainable Change

  1. Great article!

    It is certainly true that defining an inspiring vision and relevant goals are the essential first steps. Your high-level business goals will determine the appropriate subgoals in every area – and help you plan the projects to achieve them (with roles and responsibilities, timescales, etc).

    Your vision and goals provide the crucial context: they explain “the Why”. They must also match the personal values of everyone involved: goal alignment ensures genuine buy-in, emotional as well as cognitive. Clear, well expressed goals also help to define *What* you need to do to achieve them and *How* you are going to do it.

    For a visual display of your goals and priorities, project plans and progress use Goalscape (www.goalscape.com). See also Marcus Baur’s article ‘Why the Visual Overview is Vital’: http://www.goalscape.com/blog/why-visual-overview-vital-success-sport-business-and-life-marcus-baur and double Olympic Gold Medal coach Emmett Lazich’s example from top level sport here: http://www.goalscape.com/blog/.”


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