BY RICK NELSON, TAG CO-FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN OF LAUNCH CONSULTING
When it comes to success, focused attention beats a laundry list of good intentions. The lessons about the Power of 3 have worked for me over and over.Throughout my leadership experience, the number 3 has proven itself a magic number for productivity and progress. This article is a part of my series on the Power of 3, and how you can incorporate it to fuel success in all elements of your business.
It was the summer of 2005 and things were sailing along. I’d recently taken a new role with a company that seemed to have it all together. My family was healthy, I loved what I was doing, and business was strong.
Then, things changed in an instant.
Reports of impropriety and unethical behavior at the very top of the organization emerged. Within days, investigation revealed that the founder and CEO had been embezzling from his own company. Banks called for the repayment of their loans, investors wanted a pound of flesh, and blindsided employees wondered if they would be paid for the work they had done—or if they even had a job at all.
That was when I met one of the most remarkable businessmen I have ever known. Tasked with the job of identifying the extent of the damage and keeping the company moving forward, “Tom” jumped right in—and taught me a lesson I would never forget.
“I’ve been through a lot in my professional career, but nothing like this,” Tom said to company leadership by way of introduction. He continued:
“I only know one way to manage through chaos. And that is: I can only work on three things at a time. Anything more than that dilutes the effort that should be going to the most important things. When I accomplish one goal, I’ll reprioritize and move another into the top three.”
Power of 3
In this situation, these were Tom’s initial top three:
Specifically, frequent, clear, transparent communication with people. To facilitate that, Tom held an update call with leadership every morning at 6:30am and every evening at 6:30pm. Now, this was a national company, and that meant 60+ people on every single one of those calls. His expectation of all those leaders: “Share what I share and let your people know we won’t sleep until we have a way forward.”
The company was broke and headed into bankruptcy. It needed cash to continue, and convincing banks to believe in the firm when they’d just been taken for a ride was a herculean task. Tom engaged the financial team to contact every banker and institutional investment firm they could identify until they found the resources they needed. Then, Tom led that effort by example, out-dialing the entire team.
Whether they liked it or not, our customers were in it with us. They needed us to see our commitments through, and we needed them to be there when we came out on the other side of this situation. Tom promised to reach out to the largest customers personally and mobilized a plan for company leaders to contact every customer within five days.
In this crisis, there were dozens of areas that seemed as though they needed immediate attention—but under Tom’s leadership, we addressed them only after we had reached the intended progress on one of these top three focus points.
And this ruthless prioritization worked. In a very short time, Tom got the company on sound financial footing, brought production and profitability to all-time highs, and most importantly, saved the jobs of hundreds of valued, hardworking team members. I wasn’t sophisticated enough back then to know all the detailed work that went on behind the scenes, but Tom’s mantra has served me every day for the last 25 years.
Only focus on three things at once.
Even when your business isn’t in crisis, there are a lot of competing priorities. I’ve worked at jobs where we measured and worked to improve 10-12 KPIs every month and every quarter. The challenge there is that those KPIs rarely fall under only three areas of the business. Of course, a single area may comprise of multiple tasks, but multiple tasks that serve multiple areas rarely provide the results I am trying to achieve. To illustrate – imagine you take one step toward 100 different directions. You’re dizzy, you’re tired, and ultimately you’ve barely moved. Now imagine taking all 100 steps in a single direction. You may not get everywhere you possibly could, but you’ve certainly made more progress toward the finish line.
These days, I focus on three areas of improvement at any given time. The three areas that will have the greatest impact on my business are the ones I benchmark, measure, and execute plans to improve. Prioritization, as I learned from Tom all those years ago, gives me the framework for driving the right activity.
The world—business or otherwise—can be overwhelming. (I think we’ve all gotten a good taste of that over the past year.) During chaotic, uncertain, or nerve-wracking times, I am so grateful to have learned the power of three priorities. Years of practice have shown that when I focus on no more than three things at a time, my results outpace the times when I try to take on more.
When it comes to success, focused attention beats a laundry list of good intentions. Tom’s lessons about the Power of 3 have worked for me over and over. I’d love to hear the framework you use to cut through the chaos and win at what matters, Let’s talk about it in the comments, or send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org!