How to stay focused as a new CEO

When Ben Snyder started his first business, he felt like he was being suffocated. He was stuck in the weeds didn’t know how to stay focused.

“That’s true for a lot of new CEOs,” said Synder, now a Vistage speaker and principal at Bizexe.

Snyder figured out that CEOs are responsible for managing resource capacity, both for themselves and the company. He stopped trying to do everything and focused on what’s most important for executives — cash flow first, customers second, then people and resources.

Now, when Snyder speaks to business leaders, he sees that many suffer the same initial conundrum. “They don’t want to take the time to identify the most important needs,” he said. “But the senior manager’s role is to look at their capacity and say, ‘Here’s where I have to draw the line.’”

While managing, CEOs must also now contend with the ever-distracting world of technology. Maura Thomas, a Vistage speaker and author of Attention Management, said that email, messaging apps, and other technology often lead to new CEOs losing control of their attention.

“If you’re not controlling your attention, then you’re not in control of your life,” Thomas said. “Attention is the new path to productivity.”

Here are five tips for new CEOs on how to stay focused.

1. Don’t teach employees to depend on you

Thomas frequently hears leaders say that they have a hard time being productive because their employees need them. Good leaders are always available, they seem to believe.

“But, especially for new leaders, they’re teaching their team to be dependent on them,” Thomas said. “They’re reinforcing the message anytime you have a question, issue, or problem, you should come to me.”

Always-available leaders incentivize being interrupted. Instead of being at the whim of employees, Thomas suggests using tools like office hours to limit availability. This may mean blocking out a few hours during the week when anyone can come to talk to the CEO and, conversely, times when the CEO’s door is closed.

Snyder agrees, adding that many new CEOs are easily interrupted because they don’t feel comfortable being in charge. They want to be seen as just another employee, but this can’t be true for a focused CEO.

“I got comfortable saying to employees, ‘Is this what you want your CEO working on?’” Synder said. “It’s not to ridicule them or make them feel small, but so they understand that they have to be thinking in value, too, and where work will be getting done.”

2. Limit your tech

A 2018 Harvard Business Review report on how CEOs use their time found that executives spend 24 percent of their time checking email. While emails can be important, they certainly aren’t quarter-of-your-time important.

Worse than wasting time, constantly checking email, texts, and work chat services steals attention. Attention residue, a term coined by University of Washington-Bothell business professor Sophie Leroy, is what happens when we switch between tasks. For example: Stopping an important work task to check for new emails. When we return to what’s important, our brains have trouble refocusing; some part still mulls over the inbox.

Awareness of how technology steals our attention helps leaders improve, Thomas said. After learning more, Thomas said that many leaders opt for blocks of time to focus, with other blocks of time to check and respond to email. Others start abiding away messages by truly being away to take breaks or work on important tasks.

“You have no hope of controlling your attention if you don’t control your technology,” Thomas said. “Things as simple as turning off the notifications can do wonders.”

3. Focus on the value you provide

Leaders must know their most important tasks, Snyder said. Knowing allows them to focus on what matters most and say “no” to tasks that would overload them.

“You have to look at the value your work is delivering to the organization,” he said. “Sometimes CEOs and leaders just think that if they’re busy, that means they’re doing everything they can. But that’s not true.”

Executives are force multipliers, Snyder said, giving a 10-time return on what they produce. Whenever he’s working on something inessential to his company’s success, Snyder considers it to be a waste of focus.

4. Become a model

When a new CEO knows how to stay focused, they can pass the information down to employees. This is a big improvement from the habits of many executives — like late-night emails or expecting immediate responses — that can hamper focus across the entire company.

CEOs don’t have to become focus preachers; they can implicitly show employees that it’s okay to work without becoming distracted.

“You can close your door and put a sign on it that says, ‘I’ll be available in an hour, please do not disturb,’” Thomas said. “Then people understand A closed-door means something.”

5. Find peer support

Joining a peer-to-peer group was one of the events that most changed Snyder’s executive life.

“There are only so many CEOs,” Snyder said. “Most people don’t understand what it’s like to have that risk and responsibility for others. Peer-to-peer networks get you off the island — you can have someone else talk to you about your business.”

Executives in peer-to-peer groups can describe what problems they’ve had trying to find focus and get feedback from people in similar situations. Snyder said that listening to how other executives discuss how they found their focus can lead to breakthroughs.

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