Spending time on projects that he considered unimportant was driving Carlos* insane.
Carlos is an excellent leader. He’s turned around every business that he’s led and the people who work for him are loyal and, under his guidance, have quickly become powerful leaders themselves. He’s exceptionally good at what he does, which is why wasting his time is so frustrating to him.
It’s not that his success is based on being efficient. He’s actually not particularly efficient. His success is based on being targeted.
Carlos is unusually adept at opportunity spotting. He notices and relentlessly pursues unique opportunities that give his firm a big win or a strategic edge.
Spending time outside his particular talent threatens to create a double whammy for Carlos.
Whammy one is about what he’s doing: He’s forced to spend time on things he’s not good at.
Whammy two is about what he’s not doing: searching for the unique opportunity for a big win or a strategic edge. Those opportunities don’t come often and may be missed. Carlos feels lucky to have an insight when he does. If he’s distracted, he fears the insight will pass him by.
I work with many CEOs as well as members of their leadership teams, and my experience is that Carlos is not an exception; he’s the norm. Most leaders — in fact, most people who are highly successful — succeed because of a very narrow but important and unusual set of skills. We may be good at many things but we are truly great at only a small few. Becoming CEO doesn’t change that.
That’s why Carlos — like many of us — has a heightened sensitivity, almost a desperate fear, of being sucked into activities outside his strengths. We all should. Otherwise we will be drawn into mediocrity, where we don’t do ourselves — or our organizations — any good.
But it’s deeper than that. People who are great at something often don’t know exactly where their greatness comes from. They have a sense that it’s bigger than they are. And with that sense comes a fear that the magic is ephemeral and if they distract themselves it will disappear. That fear is legitimate.
You have gifts that makes you exceptional. If you’re distracted — even if it’s the Board of Directors that’s asking you to be distracted — you, and they, will regret it.
So how can you avoid being distracted?
Recognize what it is that makes you exceptional.
My book 18 Minutes is about managing time. But the first half of the book focuses on finding your sweet spot. Because time management isn’t primarily about using minutes well, it’s about using yourself well. And using yourself well means spending most of your time in your sweet spot, which is at the intersection of your strengths, weaknesses, differences, and passions.
Carlos is ahead of the game; he already knows where he’s exceptional. Whether you admit it publicly or not, you probably do too. Yet surprisingly, most people tend to shy away from their sweet spots. Accenting their strengths feels too arrogant, exposing their weaknesses feels too vulnerable, standing out from the crowd feels too precarious, and focusing on their passions feels too indulgent. But shying away from your greatness doesn’t help you or the people with whom you work. Instead, clearly identify your sweet spot and go there.
Protect your time.
Carlos needs to make sure that the majority of his time is spent making great use of his narrow and exceptional skill set. So do you. Unfortunately that’s rare. Over 22,000 people have taken a distraction quiz on my website and 73% agree or strongly agree that they don’t spend enough time at work in their sweet spot, doing work they’re really good at and enjoy the most. That’s a massive waste of time and talent. Great leaders stay focused. It may seem like senior people, because they lead large swaths of an organization, need to excel at a broad array of functions and disciplines. But that’s not the case. Generally, their success is tied to doing a very narrow range of things very well. For the most successful, exceptionally well. They protect their sweet spots by making sure that other senior people — people with great gifts in different areas — are given their own leadership roles. Roles that leverage their own narrow extraordinary talents.
When Carlos asked me for advice, I told him to do everything he could to extract himself from those projects that drew him away from his sweet spot.
“Seeing the opportunities that will bring a big win or a strategic edge is your signature,” I reminded Carlos. “It’s what makes you such a valuable asset to your business. The projects that draw you away from that may or may not be a waste of time in general but, clearly, they are a waste of your time.”
I always found this to be true. Spreading yourself too thin, trying to work on too many projects dilutes your focus and causes distractions and that in turn causes very little progress. As a result, it is hard to reach a full completion of anything due to everything becoming too overwhelming. Staying focused is part of the way to success.