By: Doug Thielen

A great coach once said, “Leadership is alignment”. At first blush, it comes across as a pithy alliteration that a coach tosses out. A throwaway line meant for media headlines. But this on-air oration from a PAC-12 football coach, is the most underrated, under the radar, leadership nugget I’ve heard in 20 years; and one that I believe has the power to turbo charge your organization’s growth, if you can put it into practice. 

Find your focus

Focus is an organization’s superpower, yet a surprising number of leaders aren’t able to identify their company’s priorities.  In a MIT study, only “28% of executives and middle managers responsible for executing strategy could list three of their company’s strategic priorities”. 

That’s terrifying.  

Even more frightening, in the same study, “97% of those leaders said they had a clear understanding of the company’s priorities and how their work contributed to corporate objectives”. 

How would your organization fair?

While there are likely many factors at play, I posit that the primary offender for most of these organizations was a true lack of focus– a need for a single priority–not eleven. Having 11 priorities isn’t focus; it’s the dogs’ breakfast. It’s a recipe for divisional leaders to each pick the 1 or 2 that matter the most to them – which leads to teams rowing in different directions.

Focus is how you scale. 

Organizational focus provides individual empowerment and accountability, letting everyone from entry level contributors to the C-suite operate independently while moving in a coordinated fashion toward the greater goal.

Harness Obsession

Focus is key, but let’s take it a step further.  The brands who win in today’s environment aren’t just focused on a single strategic priority… they are downright obsessed. They’ve identified their enemy, and every facet and layer of their org chart is aware of ‘the monster in the room’. It’s empowering, it’s engaging, and it provides personal value and purpose that employees are demanding in this new work environment

Good requires motivation. Great requires obsession. And obsession can be infectious. 

When your organization is obsessed, that obsession becomes a filter; an active framework teams use daily to make decisions, from sourcing and procurement, to marketing and HR. 

Obsession Drives Results

One of my favorite examples of organizational obsession in action is the legendary story of Alcoa aluminum and CEO and Chairman Paul O’Neil’s relentless focus.  When speaking to a forum of Wall Street investors and asked for his strategic plan to grow the business, instead of speaking to EBITDA and debt ratios, he said that they’d be focused on worker safety; a comment that had him laughed at and labeled as a “crazy hippie”. But it was O’Neill that would have that last laugh, as that focus on safety led to Alcoa’s market value increasing from $3 billion to $27 billion during his 13 year run. (Forbes)

This is a fantastic example of how you go from a mission statement, to being on a mission.

Exercise: Identify Your Team’s Focus and Obsession

Here’s an exercise for your next meeting – ask everyone to write down the answer to one, or all, of the following:

  • Part I
    • What is our purpose?
    • What is our enemy?
    • What is our focus?
    • What is the one thing we are obsessed with as an organization?
  • Part II
    • Have them hold their answers up to the screen or have them place the card in the middle of the table
    • Did everyone come up with the same thing? Were the answers close? 
  • If This, Then That Homework
    • Have each person, come to the next meeting with the following:
      • What should we be obsessed with?
      • If we were obsessed with that, how would that impact your work/functional area? What decisions would you make?

From here the real work begins. Define it. Align it. Action it. Measure it.

When you can rally around a common goal and all parts of the organization are aligned and on the same page, it removes bottlenecks, lets startups scale, and fuels ideation and innovation in every sized org.

And if you’re wondering how things worked out for the football coach who quipped this little bit of wisdom off-the-cuff in an interview: two bowl appearances in his first two seasons and handing their fiercest rivals the biggest defeat in history doesn’t sound too bad at all.

Leadership is alignment, indeed.

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