BL&T No. 070: Exploring Focus

Agency Leadership

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"An organization's focus rests on its leader's ability to focus. People talk all the time about attention deficit, and I’m not saying people don’t struggle with it. But a lack of focus always jams things up, while putting on blinders has the potential to serve a greater good."

From "Authentic: A Memoir by the Founder of Vans" by Paul Van Doren


Ever get lost in a good book or lost track of time while catching up with an old friend? Exercising, writing, and so on. We're focused, living in the moment. When we wake up, re-entering society feels more like time-traveling.

As everyone got "back to the office" last week, I recalled the strange feeling of returning to the physical office after a holiday break or vacation in the past. Within just a few hours, my time off was a distant memory. I was high on energy, firing on all cylinders. And yet, during vacation, work was the last thing on my mind. As I walked to the subway, I'd think about how odd it was that I was kicking it with family and friends or sitting atop an elephant in Thailand just days before.

I haven't traveled to any faraway places lately, but I did take a couple of weeks off over the holidays. In theory, working behind a screen all day could change how it felt to get back in the groove. Other than the lack of a cold, snowy commute, though — I was happy to discover similar energy kicking off the new year last week. It was as if I could hear the buzz of people around me, a stark contrast to Christmas Eve Eve, where the virtual office felt calm and quiet with most folks out on PTO.

I used to attribute this change in energy to a change in my physical location. It's not. It's all about focus. If I'm on vacation with my mind on work or at work with my mind on vacation, I'm not present in either. I get less out of my time, and in the end, I feel a whole lot less happy. Life turns into one loooonnng, monotonous journey.

This theme of focus couldn't have come at a better time. It set the tone for me heading into 2022 and became the lens through which I looked at the week's happenings.

Clarifying Focus for My Team

My team is currently in build mode. Where processes and systems are lacking, we're creating them. Where processes and systems exist, we're rethinking them. We're building and rebuilding, and in that way, I'm not sure there's any "mode" that's more energizing.

As motivating as these conversations can be, they can send the team in a million different directions if we're not careful. I worried that might be the case as we restarted many of these conversations last week.

In my weekly one-on-ones with my direct reports, I set time aside to discuss top priorities as they lead their teams this quarter. Our aim this week will be to get as granular as we can and commit to 2-3 priorities.

As a partner team, we used to loosely operate using a business system called EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) and set rocks, or big goals, each quarter. I would then extend this to the senior folks on my team. While we've moved away from this more recently, I could see us revisiting a similar approach down the line.

I won't be setting formal "rocks" with the team this quarter, but I still see the value in creating focus. I look forward to locking things in with my team this week and reviewing progress throughout Q1.

Meetings as Focused Time

I feel like meetings get a bad rap, especially these days. Sure, packing every day with meetings leaves no time for deep thinking, but let's not write off meetings entirely. If you ask me, they always deserve a place. When done efficiently, with a plan, they can be powerful.

Last week, I led two meetings that I hold regularly with the team:

  • Barrel Management Forum (read more here)
  • Quarterly Debriefs

During Barrel Management Forum, we have a 30-minute workshop on management themes or team structure. In our Quarterly Debriefs, I bring together the Client Services, CRM, and Design teams to reflect on lessons learned from the past quarter and identify opportunities for the next.

When these first came into being, I remember being hesitant to schedule them. I thought that adding another event to everyone's calendar would be seen as yet another interruption. I got over that and have found quite the opposite.

These meetings serve a unique purpose: making time for the team to focus on topics that often get de-prioritized. Instead of expecting our managers to find time to progress on defining team structure or wondering if the team was reflecting on lessons learned, I created the space to focus.

I'm excited to see how these meetings evolve in 2022 and discover other opportunities to bring folks together around a shared focus.

I'd be remiss not to include this excerpt from The Motive: Why So Many Leaders Abdicate Their Most Important Responsibilities:

"'If you’re having bad meetings, you’re making bad decisions. There is no getting around that. And you’re almost certainly not talking about all the right things.' ... 'And if your meetings are bad, then there is a very, very good chance that your executives are having bad meetings with their teams. And it cascades from there. And the person who is responsible for making your meetings effective is you—no one else. You can’t delegate that job. It’s yours and yours alone.'"

Re-focusing Client Feedback Calls

My final call of last week was with a recent client who submitted critical feedback along with their NPS score. While I did not work on the project, I was aware of the challenges. I was under the impression we had resolved any issues, so I was semi-surprised to see the feedback. I reached out, introduced myself, and asked if they'd be willing to chat about their experience.

My plan for the call was to listen to the client's feedback and see what we could do to turn it around. The client ended up running late. As I sat there waiting, I thought, why dwell on the past? Focus on the future.

Instead of spending the time we had together talking through what went wrong, we talked about their future vision and how we could help them get there. Feedback calls are always valuable, but they can also be draining. This time was different. I left the conversation in high spirits and saw a future I didn't know was possible.

Thought Starter

Where could focus benefit my team? Help me make progress?

There's a lot more I could say about the topic of focus. If you feel so inclined, I'd love to hear what it means to you.

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