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How Focusing on a ‘Central Issue’ Helps Leaders Improve

On Tuesday, June 4th we posted about an article by Darius Foroux explaining the importance of focusing on one thing at a time to achieve more in your lifetime https://www.theladders.com/career-advice/you-can-achieve-anything-if-you-focus-on-1-thing. Our research, reflected in our our best-selling book “How Leaders Improve” http://bit.ly/HowLeadersImproveBook, found a similar pattern. Specifically, those leaders who made the greatest improvements in perceived effectiveness indicated that they tended to focus on 1-2 related issues to work on for their own development before focusing on other unrelated issues that may have also been identified during their 360 assessments. We refer to this concept as the “Central Issue,” which is conceptually similar to Foroux’s concept of focusing on one thing at a time.

In order to help leaders identify their central issue, we determined 6 questions that would help narrow their focus.

  1. Does Feedback All Point in One Direction? When our most improved leaders read through all of their feedback, it seems that some of them – consciously or not – focused their improvement efforts on one issue that was “in the center” of all of the other feedback, and that all other feedback “pointed to.” Extensive 360-degree feedback often results in both qualitative and quantitative feedback in which there are literally hundreds of data points and dozens of comments. The leaders who we found improved the most following this feedback figured out how it pointed to one “central issue” that would help them focus on improvement towards that central goal. The bottom line is that improvement requires focus.
  2. What is the Common Thread? While writing How Leaders Improve, we spoke to a woman named Laura, owner of a sewing shop in Oregon called “The Common Thread,” and she explained to us that “in sewing, we use a common thread to gather fabric,” and she noted that it’s a “very important part of the construction of almost any garment.” We think this actual meaning of the term “common thread” nicely captures the essence of what we heard from some of our most improved leaders:  Their central issue was represented by some theme in their feedback that helped them to gather together all the other feedback into a single, concise issue they can work on.
  3. What Message Becomes Front of Mind? It is important for a leader to have a way of keeping his or her central issue in the “front of his or her mind.” Just as marketers need to cut through the advertising clutter to make sure their product is “front of mind” for consumers (for example when you think of tissue, Kleenex comes to mind), one of the things that characterized the central issue for some of our most improved leaders was that the issue was something that was “front-of-mind” for them, even months after they had gotten their feedback and developed their action plans.
  4. What Blind Spots Get Exposed? One of the factors that characterizes the central issues that our most improved leaders identified is that they were in areas where the leaders were surprised that they were getting feedback that they needed to become more effective. For example, one of our most improved leaders getting feedback from his manager indicating that he needed to improve in the area of problem solving. At first this was surprising to the leader, as he had always viewed this as a one of his key strengths.  However, as he thought more deeply about the feedback, he decided that the issue was that, in his words, “I kept these skills to myself, meaning that I would solve a problem but not share that with anybody.”  So, his central issue became communication – appropriately and effectively letting people know about solutions to problems he had come up with. As we sometimes say to leaders we work with, “The feedback doesn’t create the perception.”  The perception was already there; the feedback just brings it out into the open.
  5. Can I Really Control This? The term self-efficacy refers to one’s belief in his or her ability to complete tasks and reach goals. This is an important factor for leaders to address when responding to feedback and identifying their central issue as something that they feel confident they can work to improve. Leaders who made the greatest improvement in their perceived credibility addressed topics they believed they could materially impact.
  6. What is My Development Focus? One of the likely reasons that central issues were so common among our most improved leaders is that they created focus for one’s development efforts. More specifically, having a central issue enables a leader to, in essence, use a relatively broad lens through which to view a number of disparate bits of feedback in order to focus on a consistent theme. For example, one of our most improved leaders wanted to work on both building relationships and conveying passion.  This leader integrated these two specific development goals under the Central Issue of “Creating More Impactful Relationships.”  The leader’s action steps included networking, meeting one-on-one with others in the organization, and seeking to use effective non-verbal and verbal forms of communication

In conclusion, while the importance for leaders to find a “central issue” to focus on in order to effectively improve is evident, this concept can be quite complicated. When reflecting on one’s 360 feedback, we believe the above 6 questions may help a leader to identify the necessary elements of the central issue needed to create necessary focus on their improvement and development.

As a leader, how have you responded to feedback and identified a central issue to focus on in order to improve? We look forward to your comments and invite you to join the #AvionConsulting newsletter for further discussion at  http://bit.ly/AvionNews.