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A 12-Step Recovery Program to Break from the Pack—Step 9: Honor a Minimal Number of Priorities

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The fewer priorities you have, the more likely you'll be able to honor them, and the more likely you can achieve the breakthrough results necessary to lead the pack.

This article is excerpted from Break From the Pack: How to Compete in a Copycat Economy and is the ninth in a twelve-part series.

There's a clear limit to the amount of resources, attention, and energy that people can allocate for genuine commitment and breakthrough performance. The fewer priorities you have, the more likely you'll be able to honor them, and the more likely you can achieve the breakthrough results necessary to lead the pack. When I see a corporate plan with numerous "mission-critical" priorities, I know that the leader's focus will become diffused and that little of importance will get accomplished. Any plan with more than five "priorities" usually winds up prioritizing nothing. The result is mediocrity.

During the 20 years that Jack Welch transformed GE into one of the most valuable corporations on earth, he put forth only a small sequential set of simple strategic priorities: boundarilessness, debureaucratization, Six Sigma quality, globalization, and e-commerce. None of these initiatives was revolutionary. What made them distinctive is that Welch honored them. He demonstrated a fanatic obsession with driving each of those initiatives throughout the organization and holding his managers accountable for achieving results consistent with them. His success was made possible because he put on the table only a few major corporate initiatives. It would have been impossible for him to have shown the kind of passionate commitment and follow-through if he had listed dozens of major corporate priorities.

Colin Powell's leadership credo has always been, "Figure out what is crucial, then stay focused on that. Never allow side issues to knock you off track." During his tenure as Secretary of State from 2000 to 2004, that's how he operated. After examining the multiple reports documenting the myriad operational, personnel, and budgetary problems in the huge, sprawling global bureaucracy called the Department of State, he told me and the other members of his Leadership Advisory Committee that one of his first decisions as "CEO" of State was, "No more reports. We know the challenges. It's time to act." The second decision he made was to limit core strategic priorities to no more than five:

  1. The Diplomatic Readiness initiative— In the wake of the radical downsizing of the 1990s and the needs of the post-9/11 environment, Powell aimed to fill the foreign service talent shortfall and drastically overhaul human resource policies to ensure a steady flow of the "best and brightest" employees to diplomatic posts.
  2. The Information Technology initiative— Powell made the overhaul and modernization of State's global information technology a top goal, with the objective of having a state-of-the-art, "enterprise-wide knowledge-management system."
  3. The Security initiative— In the wake of 9/11, Powell aimed to streamline the visa-application process to ensure speed and national security, and to use the data to network effectively with anti-terrorist organizations, while simultaneously upgrading personal security for all State personnel abroad.
  4. The Facilities initiative— The goal, said Powell, was to "completely revamp the way we construct our embassies and other overseas buildings; they must be better places to work and they must be more secure."
  5. The Management Reform initiative— Powell's focus was on overhauling budgeting and resource allocation, and doing "right-sizing" to streamline the entire department. He sought to employ the minimum resources necessary to attain the President's top priority objectives.

The Foreign Affairs Council's November 2004 independent assessment of the State Department confirmed a number of extraordinary achievements during Powell's four-year tenure. Here are just a few:

  • "State has redressed in three years almost the entire personnel deficit of the 1990s (some 2,000 employees hired above attrition)."
  • "State has completely replaced and modernized its hardware infrastructure…. Overseas, IT has been used to create 15 "virtual" Foreign Service posts…."
  • "The new Consular Consolidated Database is refreshed every seven minutes, contains 75 million files (including photos and applicants' total visa histories), and is immediately accessible to all visa officers and to immigration inspectors at U.S. ports of entry."
  • "State's Bureau of Overseas Building has completed 13 major capital construction projects, all within two years and $63 million under budget."

Is it any wonder that another set of measurements showed that morale within State around the world shot upward during Powell's tenure?

At State Farm Insurance, Harold Gray took Powell's philosophy and applied it with even more simplicity to his seven-state Pacific Northwest zone. He wanted to propel the Pacific Northwest zone's revenue and cost performance from the bottom third in the State Farm internal rankings to the top third within one year. After careful scrutiny and analysis, Gray and his team calculated that the entire zone's performance could catapult toward this goal if it could meet just three objectives from December 2004 to December 2005:

  1. Each independent agent sells a net increase of three auto policies per month.
  2. Each independent agent sells a net increase of one homeowner policy per month.
  3. Despite new investments to help agents meet those above two goals, the zone incurs no change in total expenses.

To be sure, Gray and his team addressed a myriad of diverse management issues throughout the year, including accelerating the sales of other products, like life insurance and mutual funds. But the "0-3-1" credo (zero expenses, three auto policies, one homeowner policy) propelled the zone's efforts. Gray applied the credo to budgeting, training, meeting agendas, sales conferences, leadership retreats, performance reviews, information systems, and, of course, his regular communications with his troops and agents. Throughout the year, all the zone's activities were evaluated in terms of how well they advanced the 0-3-1 credo. Gray often said that an employee's commitment to "0-3-1" was the figurative "door key" combination to board the bullet train.

Gray argued that by focusing on just three big, laser-beam goals, people would experience the urgency and wherewithal to achieve them. He told me that asking people to make big changes to the status quo in the absence of 0-3-1 would be far less efficient than having them come to their own realization that the only way to achieve 0-3-1 would be to make big changes. He was right. Within one year, the Pacific Northwest zone reached 127 percent of its target and leapfrogged to the top third in the internal State Farm performance rankings. Gray's team is now in the process of enacting a three-year plan that will target a few specific markets that will spur the next wave of growth. However the plan for the new bullet train "combination" materializes, Gray will make sure it will honor a minimal number of priorities. That's a good combination for you, too.

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