by CIO Staff

The Bottom Line Is the Bottom Line

Nov 07, 20058 mins

Whether a specific company focuses on profits, sales, customer satisfaction or any other measurement, everyone in every organization faces some bottom-line measurement they have to make, either individually, as groups or departments. No matter the measure, every organization has its own type of result that matters most in various parts of that organization.

While this may seem obvious, it is still easy to be distracted by the crisis of the moment throwing even the most stable manager off course.

Tough management requires that every person determine precisely what results matter most to him or her at the time and create the proper focus to achieve those results. Every action should have consequences that produce results.

Results can be a moving target: The results that matter most today may not be the same as those that matter tomorrow. It is up to the individual to self-monitor the result-of-the-day, though it can be difficult to even determine what matters most when conflicting signals come from executives or managers.

The key is to do more work up front, before the results are expected. Too many people end up scrambling at the last minute, seemingly incessantly, on every project or task. As a result, managers often end up working in serial fashion, since all they can do is handle the deadline of the moment. This is a losing proposition, since as tasks increase, managers hit the ceiling in terms of potential hours to work.

To keep track of what matters most at any given time takes an extraordinary amount of focus. If not properly done, this can lead to a lack of true productivity or, at the very least, the personal sense of getting nothing done. Just because a memo from above demands some immediate action, it doesn’t mean the manager should change gears and leave unfinished business on the table. Yes, the directive has to be dealt with, but the context of what the manager was already working on cannot be lost. Otherwise, all the time and resource spent will have been wasted and, in effect, become an unrecoverable cost of business with no offsetting upside. Even though everyone is juggling more balls in business these days, it doesn’t mean more can be added to the mix without negative repercussions.

For executives and managers to succeed takes more focus on the part of the individual, which is easier said than done. After the ability to communicate well, the most sought after skill for businesspeople today is the ability to stay focused.

In fact, more than three-quarters of senior executives and managers say staying focused is the most important skill for the future. (Communicating well is viewed by the overwhelming majority of managers as the number one skill). However, with so many distractions in the business environment, it can be difficult to retain that focus.

With the majority of business people working 10 or more hours a day, and internal and external needs frequently changing, it is challenging to keep an eye on what matters most. Though you may have a great capacity and capability to focus, if superiors keep changing priorities, the focus could be wasted on what instantly became the wrong things.

The amount of focus determines what stays at the top of managers’ lists and what gets done. However, it is very easy to end up juggling items on the list, as priorities seem to change, whether based on individual judgments or external forces. Changing priorities with the resultant shifts in focus can cause chaos in an organization.

Many top executives will say that the top priorities remain relatively constant, but this is not true at the day-to-day level of many managers. Because everything is relative to everything else, priorities very naturally shift. It may be because of market conditions, required end-of-quarter results or even personnel issues, such as a colleague calling in sick or leaving. No matter the cause, a person can end up in a different hot seat on any given day or week.

However, a larger issue of staying focused at work is the amount of information flow that everyone is barraged with on a daily basis. Voicemail, e-mail, cell phones, instant messages, the Net and 24-hour news television can make whatever is happening at the moment look like the most important issue, causing a shift in priorities, leading to a change in focus. It is so easy today to have a crisis created by e-mail or voice mail when an executive or manager too quickly panics when a competitor moves or there’s a change in sales.

Working Smarter and Harder

Just because you’re working smarter doesn’t mean that hard work is not involved. However, by combining working smarter with working harder, the results can be more predictable and better with time left over. The key is to work smart and hard all the time that you are working, with total focus on doing only those things that pertain to the desired result.

People tend to equate working more hours with working harder, which is not necessarily the case. By working more hours, hourly efficiency tends to decrease and it becomes easier to lose sight of activities that best produce the desired results.

“It’s so easy to let yourself get distracted,” says Phil Merdinger, Principal and Worldwide Partner in Business Development at Mercer, the operational and strategic human resource consulting firm. Merdinger’s role is to focus on client development, essentially, finding ways to bring new business into the firm.

“Over the past several years, it’s been more difficult to balance the focus on results with reality,” says Merdinger. “You focus on what looked like reasonable results but then ended up being not realistic. This increases the level of frustration and anxiety. Nobody anticipated what happened to the economy. We’re working harder with less resource, because of adjusting staff size downward, so we’re trying to do more with less. Combine that with the fact that when the economy slows down, you start to watch the bank account. That makes it more difficult to produce revenue.”

When market conditions are tight and managers are pressed to make the numbers, the concept of working smarter and harder can easily be forgotten. This can result not only in lost focus on ultimate goals, but also misdirection to areas that are detrimental.

Focusing on results is not necessarily something that is needed just for a few minutes or hours, but rather something that has to be practiced throughout the day and week.

Be Realistic About Results

Tough management requires business leaders to be more realistic in the results they demand from those who work for them. It’s no secret that many organizations have become more results oriented in recent years. The economy, market conditions, increased competition, price pressures, globalization and more selective customers all have forced businesses to watch the bottom line more closely. Everyone is doing more with less, while even more is being expected by unforgiving shareholders and top management. As a result, the overwhelming majority of senior executives and managers see the top management at their organizations as either extremely or somewhat demanding. And the larger the company, the more demanding is top management.

Leaders must demand results. But that’s not the issue. Top management is not always realistic about the level of results demanded and how well those results can be delivered by those below. In fact, almost 80 percent of executives and managers do not see the results expected as extremely realistic for them to deliver. In companies with more than 10,000 employees, it’s almost 90 percent. Top executives have a right to be highly demanding from those who are paid to deliver results. The problem comes in setting proper expectations, based on the real capability of delivering.

Tough management requires positive answers to two questions:

  • Do the original demands remain consistent?
  • Are those who are expected to deliver properly equipped?

For tough management, it is important for top executives to stay highly demanding in requiring results, while making sure that managers are provided constant feedback on how to deliver those results.

When more managers face what they consider to be more realistic demands, better (or at least more predictable) numbers will be delivered.

Excerpted from Tough Management: The 7 Ways to Make Tough Decisions Easier, Deliver the Numbers, and Grow Business in Good Times and Bad (McGraw-Hill, 2005). Copyright 2005 by Chuck Martin.