Must-Win Battles & Cannot-Miss Opportunities

In one odd way, the holidays are a very strange time of year for business leaders.

For many, the focus is not just on now, but right now. Retailers and those in their ecosystem are very focused on holiday shopping and making every customer visit to site or store count. Even business-to-business service companies find that there is a year-end crunch for planning against demand for next year. While all this is going on, we are trying to make merry and enjoy the fruits and celebrations of the season. Finally, after a last New Year’s fete, we return to the office with a combination of optimism and fatality, wading back into business as usual.

One of my coaching clients, a CEO who got his experience in the college of hard knocks, came up with a strategy for his year-end focus of attention a few years ago. His is a tough business with margin pressures and a constant struggle to find the right talent. Although the business produces well over $75 million in sales, he has a focus on detail that any shopkeeper would envy. But in conversation with a colleague a few years ago, he decided to shift his focus near year-end and in the first month of the new year. With his permission, I am sharing his process with you.

Step One: Identify the “must-win battles” and “cannot-miss opportunities” for your business in the coming year. If this list is more than three items long, go back and rethink. Your criteria should be unforgiving. To the CEO, everything can seem important. But this is a time to prioritize and force rank. If your list is too long, make yourself put the initiatives in order and pick the top one or two — three only if you absolutely must. Delegate or delay the rest of the list. Your personal list is only the must-win/cannot-miss issues.

Step Two: Block half of your calendar for December and January. Yes, half. Yes, it is a lot of time. No, it is not impossible or even unreasonable. Remember, you are focusing on the must-win battles and the cannot-miss opportunities for next year.

Blocking your time off sends a message to your organization that the issues you are working on matter and demand your personal attention. Even if someone else is going to run the project, make certain that you are clear about what you will be focusing on for the coming 30 to 45 days.

In December, half of the time blocked out can be for merry-making and sharing the joys of the season with colleagues, staff, vendors, customers and the community. Again, you are modeling that these things matter. (If you do not know why they do, then go get a copy of Pat Lencioni’s “The Advantage” or “The Essential Deming” and read it over the holiday season.) The remaining time that you blocked off should be used to focus on your must-win/cannot-miss projects, and be certain you are ready to get a fast start on them after the break.

Now, the hard part: Take time off. Ignore the list of projects big and small and take a few days away so you can return refreshed. Leave the notes and the planning files behind. Enjoy a few days away to get some distance from your deep dive.

In January, you now have half of your time set aside for putting the year on a solid footing, and you can see your projects with new eyes. Half of that time can be spent with the projects you stripped from your list and delegated to others, ensuring that they have what they need to get their projects launched as well.

The remaining time? You guessed it. You get to focus on setting up to win the must-wins and target the cannot-misses. If all goes well, you should be able to take your summer holiday without either your must-wins whispering in your ear or the need for checking email.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, December 17, 2012.