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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog


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One of the most heavily-used words in business is ‘focus’. Business gurus, management consultants, business school professors all talk about it. Business leaders pepper their presentations with it. Annual reports can’t get by without it. ‘Focus’ frequently comes up on School for CEOs programmes as future and current business leaders get to grips with the complexities of running a business.

So, why all this focus on, er, focus? Why can’t businesses just do everything? Surely there’s more money to be made by doing lots of things rather than just a few?

In practice, businesses must focus. It really does matter. Here are at least four reasons why:

    • Market – customers buy from a business they trust, a business that offers something better (or cheaper) than they can buy from someone else or indeed do themselves. That trust is much easier to demonstrate, and much easier for the customer to remember, for a narrow range of products or services. This is the basis of branding, where the brand triggers an emotional response in a consumer. The emotional response to, say, British Airways is very different to that for, say, Burger King
    • Competition – it’s generally easy to copy what your business does. Competitors can see what you do, customers can tell them about you, employees leave and take your secrets with them. You can only beat your competitors by focusing relentlessly on a relatively narrow set of processes, products, services, locations and so on. If you try and cover too broad a waterfront, you’ll be picked off by people who do something that matters better than you do it. In this way you realise …
    • Scale – the more scale you can amass, the lower your costs and the more resources you have available. You want to build and defend scale and you do this by realising your Sources of Competitive Advantage (if you’re advised by BCG) or your Key Success Factors (if you’re advised by McKinsey). Scale is big
    • People – employees are at the heart of every business. It’s much easier for them to concentrate their efforts on a defined set of objectives, processes, customers, products and so on – rather than a loose range of stuff. One way to think about businesses is as groups of people coming together for a common purpose. Most businesses can, in practice, focus on about three major initiatives at once. If they’ve achieved one big thing in a year, they’ve had a good year. Focus on a few things and make them successful – much better than trying to do too many and failing.

So, there we have it. Four good reasons to focus. Have I got it right? Have I, um, focused on too few reasons – or indeed, too many? Feel free to let me know!

Finally, Happy New Year. I trust 2016 will turn out to be a winner for you.

© Patrick Macdonald 2016

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