How to figure out what really matters as a boss

There’s a famous online story about Bill Gates and Warren Buffett describing their secret to success. According to the story, both Gates and Buffett were asked separately to write down one word that explains their success.

Both went away, wrote down one word, then returned. Both wrote the same word down:


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Now, I have no clue if this story is true or not. Either way, I absolutely love this story. The reason why is it has such a powerful lesson about success included.

To truly become successful, you need to know how to figure out what really matters. It’s why we at Ten Minute MBA wrote an entire essay about how 80–20 only works if you can correctly identify the 20% of actions that drives 80% of the results.

However, that post focused on you. Things change when you become a boss

The number one skill you need as a boss is the ability to know how to figure out what really matters

As you continue on your journey to success, it’s inevitable you’ll start to manage other people. Whether that’s an actual team as a manager at a company or freelancers from Fiverr, you’ll have to be a manager eventually.

Consulting firms, including mine, tend to coach that the ideal Span of Control (i.e.: number of direct reports for a manager) is six people. Any more than six and it’s too many for a manager to support. Any less and the manager won’t have enough to do.

But let’s think about that for a second. If you have a team of six people, seven including yourself, you can accomplish amazing things. Billion dollar companies are built with smaller teams.

So it’s certainly possible your team of seven can get a lot done. But only if you know how to figure out what really matters. If you aren’t working on what matters, you’re not just wasting your time.

You’re wasting seven people’s time.

This week has been a learning experience for me as a boss

I’ve been a manager of other people for years now, and it’s always a great learning experience. There’s probably a 100 different essays to write about things I’ve learned as a manager, and that still won’t do the topic justice!

But this week in particular has been an exciting challenge. I’m filling in for another manager is out of town. In other words, I don’t know the team and their working styles. That in itself is a considerable challenge.

What I’ve found is that this team has a lot going on, more than I expected. There’s extensive analysis in Excel and dozens of different external factors to consider. So when I meet with members of the team to discuss the next steps, it’s easy to get into the details quickly. On Monday, I certainly fell prey to this.

When you go into the details, you’re losing sight of what matters. You can quickly get into a 30-minute conversation about how to run an analysis without stopping to ask if it has any value to the end story. The problem is exaccerabted if you are with people who find debating an intellectually stimulating exercise. You can discuss the whole day away without getting anything done.

As a boss, you need to know how to figure out what really matters. Or, to reference Gates and Buffett, you need to know how to focus.

Here’s how to figure out what really matters: 10 words or less

Here’s the simple rule I’ve developed as a manager: ask your team to use ten words or less to describe what’s on their mind. You’ll immediately get to the heart of the matter.

For example, this is an example that occurred this week (real story, fake name):

  • Mark: “Hey Dean, you got a second?”
  • Dean: “Sure Mark, what’s up?”
  • Mark: “So I have this problem with this analysis. I can’t get the numbers to tie.”
  • Dean: “Okay, how can I help?”
  • Mark: “Well, I want you to check the formulas to make sure I’m doing this right. If it’s not the formula’s, I’m worried that the data we have isn’t accurate. If that’s the case, I’ll need to figure out where they’re wrong and go back to (client) to get more data. However, our client counterpart over there has already given us a ton of data, and I don’t think he wants to hear from me again. In that case, I’d want you to reach out, so it’s not coming from me. I can write you an email so you don’t need to write it, but I think it needs to come from you. Does that sound like a good plan?”
  • Dean: “Sounds like there’s a couple of things going on and I want to make sure I’m following. Let’s simplify: can you tell me whats the problem in 10 words or less?”
  • Mark: “My analysis doesn’t make sense, and I’m worried about what that means.”

10 words or less cuts through the noise to the heart of the matter

In the example above, Mark ended up using 12 words. He’s a rockstar, by the way. I’d happily give him a promotion.

However, compare the difference of what Mark initially led with to the “10 words or less” answer. The first time, Mark mentioned the following as problems:

  • The numbers in the analysis not being what he expected
  • Wanting me to check his excel
  • The data not being correct
  • Managing the client relationship
  • Writing the email to the client to save me time

In this case, it’s easy to get bogged down in things that don’t really matter. We could easily spend an hour checking formulas in Excel and that still won’t solve the problem.

In the “10 words or less answer”, the problem is much more clear: the analysis didn’t make sense.

Because we were focusing on the macro, that the analysis didn’t make sense, it took us less than five minutes to figure out the problem. It was an analysis that didn’t need to be done, which is why the numbers didn’t make sense. Problem solved.

Mark and I moved onto a much better use of our time. Said another way, we were more focused on what matters.

The lesson is this: cut through the bullshit by realizing less is more

It’s so easy to get bogged down into the details. But as a manager of a team, you waste your team’s time if you’re focused on the wrong crap. Even worse, you won’t reach your possible level of success if you’re focused on the wrong thing. You need focus on only what matters.

Have you ever heard the adage: “It’s harder to write a short essay than a long one.” The reason why writing a short essay is harder is because it forces you to be specific about what the problem is. It’s easier to ramble and not concisely address the problem.

It’s the same logic as a manager. Force yourself and your team to use 10 words or less when describing a problem. My best guess is you’ll see a dramatic improvement in your team’s use of time. You and your team will see an increase in focus, simply by using less words.

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