If you’re too spread out and trying to accomplish too many things, you’re setting yourself—and your team—up for a lot of frustration.
If you were to ask 10 middle managers at your company what your organization’s top three priorities were, would all 10 give you the same answers? Or would those answers vary wildly?
This test is worth is trying. If your managers aren’t all saying the same thing, you’ve got a pretty good indication that you’ve got a case of Shiny Object Syndrome. Your organization is either overcommitted or communication within your company isn’t where it needs to be–or both. And it’s probably both. If your organization’s priority list is always expanding and you’re spinning too many plates, it’s likely that communication is scattered and confusing, too.
“What you focus on is what you get. In fact, what you focus on grows.”
— John Addison, CEO of Addison Leadership Group, Inc.
We’re doing more with less. That’s not a new concept, nor is it unique to direct selling by any means. Regardless of how many resources you have in place, however, it remains incredibly challenging for any company to remain focused on doing a handful of things really well. First, we have access to information 24 hours a day–information about technology, about innovation, economic forecasts and so much more. Change is constant, as is the fear of missing out, or otherwise failing to keep up. If revenue begins to decline, it’s tempting to want to try something radically different instead of considering that maybe staying the course could be the smarter strategy.
In a 2017 article for the Harvard Business Review (“The Overcommitted Organization”), Mark Mortensen and Heidi Gardner discussed the ramifications of assigning employees to multiple projects at the same time. According to the authors, a survey of more than 500 managers in global corporations found that 81 percent of those who were working on teams were, in fact, serving on more than one team simultaneously. “Although most managers recognize the increasing prevalence of multiteaming, few have a complete understanding of how it affects their organizations, their teams, and individual employees.” Further, Mortensen and Gardner found that the more senior employees became, the more likely they were to be leading multiple projects at the same time. That’s stressful in and of itself, but if there’s little or no coordination among all of those initiatives–if employees can’t leverage learnings from one project to aid in another–then confusion reigns.
What makes maintaining focus especially challenging for direct sellers?
While leaders across every industry are tasked with prioritization, there are some very distinct dynamics within direct selling companies that make us particularly vulnerable to overcommitting ourselves.
First, direct selling is a highly customer service-oriented industry. We say yes–a lot. People are at the center of everything, and that includes the corporate environment, where expressing resistance to any proposed new initiative may be perceived as a resistance to support the company’s mission or its field. The relationship between corporate and the field is symbiotic; one wouldn’t exist without the other. Therefore, direct selling companies take great care to ensure that they’re offering products and programs that keep the sales force energized and motivated. That requires keeping an ear to the ground, staying on top of trends–or, better yet, starting trends.
Speaking of the field, field members–and in particular, field leaders–carry influence. “If you’ve got a group of leaders who think there’s an issue and you take it as gospel truth without doing the due diligence yourself and really quantifying it, it might be a big issue to them in the moment, but not over the long term. It’s easy to get distracted by opinions rather than rely upon facts,” says Senior Vice President of Business Development for SUCCESS Partners Noah Westerlund.
Part of the challenge with determining your priorities in the field, Westerlund adds, is the lack of transparency that has traditionally surrounded distributor activity. While we’ve been able to examine daily sales figures, we haven’t been able to take a deep dive into what’s happening behind those numbers–for example, how many people an average distributor is talking to each day. When a distributor calls you and reports a problem, then, there’s not an easy way to quantify the potential impact of the issue she’s reporting. “Our industry’s increased access to meaningful data gives us greater insight into what’s really happening out in the field. However, in order for that data to help you make informed decisions, direct selling companies need to make data analysis “part of the culture so you know everyone’s using it,” Westerlund says. “Otherwise, it’s only a small sample–you get these pockets of information. You need to make sure it’s representative of the entire system.”
Choosing Your Focus
We’re at the start of a new year, and undoubtedly, you’re giving some thought to your overarching goals for the next 12 months. When making changes, waiting on results is another challenging aspect for direct sellers. “Patience is one of the biggest challenges that I’ve watched corporate leaders struggle with. Entrepreneurs are drivers,” says founder of Adams Resource Group, Paul Adams. “They make things happen. It’s difficult to admit that making a change takes time. Getting results from those changes takes longer. Corporate leaders have to know they have taken the time to examine their strategy from all angles and once they commit to it, make it happen.” Your leaders undoubtedly have their own opinions, which likely are shaped by their respective departmental roles.
No matter the direct selling company, we’re all in the business of people. Finding your focal point is easy—all of us should be looking at the same place on the horizon. The field comes first. “In direct sales, your focus always has to be on the salesperson,” says Jessica Honegger, founder and Co-CEO of Noonday Collection.
Most direct sales companies are naturally focused on building a brand, which requires a bit of give and take when allocating resources. “Our focus is first and foremost on the community and how we’re creating value for them, and then the brand,” Honegger adds. “A lot of direct selling companies–they make a choice. They focus on their compensation plan and on their sales force and on growing, growing, growing; whereas we just really want to be a well-recognized brand many years from now. We’re always balancing limited resources. Are we going to use our marketing dollars to enable our sales force, or to grow our brand?”
“My view is, if the incomes of the sales force aren’t growing, you’re not growing,” says John Addison, CEO of Addison Leadership Group, Inc. He recommends examining the pulse of your sales force not only by reviewing the numbers daily, but also monthly in an in-depth session. “That doesn’t mean that when you have a downturn, you need to change a bunch of stuff. I see companies who always think they’re one incentive away from growing and then you get a bunch of confusion and no one knows what to do. Way too many businesses and companies I see are a mile wide and an inch deep. If you’re too spread out and trying to accomplish too many things, it’s going to be a self-defeating thing.”
Zeroing in on your key priorities is only part of the picture. Employees must also have the flexibility to adapt as needs arise. This is where a critical distinction comes into play. Strategy is the why; tactics are the how. Westerlund offers a great example: Imagine a mid-level manager rowing a boat furiously on a lake. She’s expending a lot of energy and rowing like crazy, but if you were to ask her where she’s going, she’d have no idea. Her tactic is rowing that boat, but her strategy–her destination–is missing. And, before you pinpoint your destination, “It’s really important to spend that up-front time diagnosing your strategy so you’re not throwing solutions at the wrong problems,” Honegger says. “I always encourage corporate leaders to begin with the end in mind. What are you trying to accomplish and what activities, behaviors, systems, etc. are needed to accomplish that goal? It is easy to let little daily distractions cause us to move away from our goals. Often, I encourage people to stop doing activities that are not leading toward the ultimate goal,” says Adams.
Confusing Tactics With Strategy
All too often, Westerlund says, companies abandon an initiative and don’t give themselves the opportunity to mature a strategy. “The biggest problem that companies have in this industry is we confuse tactics for strategy. Tactics are the day to day–running a promotion, setting up a new warehouse, testing a different pricing model–steps that we take to fulfill our strategy. Strategy is about ‘How are we going to accomplish x given y?’ How you answer that question is your strategy. When you let tactics eclipse strategy, you lack focus and that results in confusion.” That doesn’t mean good ideas won’t pop up every single day, but you’ve got to take that good idea and package it in a form that gets you closer to that strategic goal rather than take you off course. And if it takes you off course, it may be a good idea; it just might not be the right time. Or you might have to re-evaluate your strategy at some point–but you can’t do that every day.
“The biggest problem that companies have in this industry is we confuse tactics for strategy.”
— Noah Westerlund, Senior Vice President of Business Development, SUCCESS Partners
Tactics and strategy aren’t rigid entities; a certain degree of flexibility is required in order to invite creativity and innovation. The term “tactical performance” describes how well a company sticks to its plan, while “adaptive performance” refers to how well a company diverges from its plan, say Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, co-authors of the New York Times bestseller Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Tactical performance, say the authors, answers questions like “What are my measurable goals? What is my timeline? How, precisely, am I doing?” Businesses usually focus most of their efforts on tactical performance, which, in most cases, is easily measured–for example, the month’s total sales for your new product, or number of new distributors welcomed during a special promotion. Adaptive performance, according to McGregor and Doshi, enables an organization to deal with variability. “It is what leads to distinctive innovation, customer experience, quality, and customer-centric sales.”
So what’s your plan?
How do you wrap all of this knowledge together into one cohesive, streamlined and yet flexible plan–one that communicates an overarching strategy in which everyone understands his or her role, but which also gives your employees the latitude to suggest improvements or alternative approaches?
Keeping the field top of mind, Addison recommends not only tracking production on a daily basis, but also gathering your leadership at least once a month to review all of the numbers in depth, so potential issues can be discussed–and, if necessary, addressed–before they become larger problems. “You don’t constantly need to change your strategy,” he says, “but you should be constantly analyzing and tweaking your tactics.”
There’s something even more important than strategy and tactics in all of this, though, Addison says–and that’s culture. Everyone on your leadership team and every senior field leader should understand the why of what makes your business great. From there, your strategy and will help define the things you’re going to do to grow the business and build it for the long term.
When communicating your strategy to your employees and especially your sales force, simplicity is one of your most effective tools for keeping everyone focused. “People always talk about who they’re competing with in their business. The truth is, what you’re competing with are the distractions in people’s lives,” Addison continues. “You’re trying to compete with the shelf space of their attention. So if you’re focused on too many different things, they’ll tune you out. Your message better be very focused on their personal development and the growth of their business, and it has to be repetitive.”
Staying the course can be challenging when “you’re in the business of creating excitement and attracting people,” Addison adds. If your employees and your sales force know what you stand for, where you’re headed and how they fit into the picture, you’re far more likely to reach your destination.
Tactical Performance – is how effectively your organization sticks to its strategy. It is the driver of focus and consistency. It allows organizations to increase strength by directing limited resources to the fewest targets.
Adaptive Performance – is how effectively your organization diverges from its strategy. Adaptive performance manifests as creativity, problem solving, grit, innovation, and citizenship.
In a nutshell, tactical performance is how well you stick to your plan, and adaptive performance is how well you diverge from your plan. High-performing companies need both. You can overdo tactical performance, and you can also be too adaptive. For example, if an employee doesn’t have the autonomy to employ creativity to reach a goal, or if your culture is so adaptive that you fail to deliver a consistent experience to your customers.
Source: Harvard Business Review, October 10, 2017. “There Are Two Types of Performance – but Most Organizations Only Focus on One.” Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi