Losing Focus

There’s a very interesting thing about Lee Iacocca that most people don’t know, or don’t remember.

If you don’t know who  Lee Iacocca is (and shame on you for your lack of business knowledge if you don’t!), he’s one of the most famous CEOs in history, and the business visionary who turned Chrysler around from near bankruptcy back in the late 80s.

Unlike today’s turnarounds, where management lays off thousands of front-line workers, Iacocca started at the top, where the problems usually are, and personally fired 33 of the company’s top 35 vice presidents. He did a lot of other things, and you can read about the details here, but the point is he took a company that was almost out of business to one of the top car companies in the world in just a few years.

It really was pretty amazing and he is definitely someone you can learn from. I certainly have.

However, there’s a second part of the story that most people aren’t aware of. Once Chrysler was back on top, and Iacocca was no longer in the heat of solving the huge problem that was Chrysler, he started to lose focus. He started to flounder around. When he was focused, he was responsible for one of the greatest turnarounds in business history. But when things were finally going great, he started doing some very weird things.

While he was still CEO, instead of focusing on his business, he did things like:

  • Headed the renovation of the Statue of Liberty
  • Joined a congressional commission on budget reduction
  • Wrote two books
  • Began a syndicated newspaper column
  • Bought an Italian villa and started bottling his own wine
  • Bought a Gulfstream jet company
  • Went into business with an Italian automaker

As he was doing all this silly crap, Chrysler started to have real problems. Again.

Iacocca is a smart guy, and a legendary businessman. Why did he do all of this?

Because he lost focus.

He’s probably one of those guys who is really fantastic under pressure, and deadlines, but weak when the pressure is off. Or maybe he’s not like that at all and just lost his edge. It happens.

I can relate. There have been times I was working very hard for months on a very important project, problem, or goal, and was very productive. As soon as the project was completed or the problem was solved, suddenly my motivation was gone, and I started to drift. My productivity and results suffered, until I found a “reason” to get moving again.

Add to that all the normal things in your life that constantly call to your attention, and it’s no wonder that losing your focus like this is very easy to do. There are two ways to ensure this does not happen to you.

1. Always have a second goal or project behind your current goal. One goal, or one big project, is never enough. You need multiple layers of goals or projects that you consider important. This way, you’ll never lose your focus or your edge. Once your current goal or project is completed, you can celebrate, take a few days off, pat yourself on the back, then on Monday morning dive into your next project/goal and get to work.

2. Ensure that whatever “big” project/goal you’re working on is part of a greater whole rather than the whole itself. Too many workaholics out there consider their work to be everything. This is not a way to win in the long run. For a while you’ll be okay, but eventually you’re going to hit a wall where you’ll realize you should have been focusing on other areas in addition to your current project.

This is what having a life Mission is all about. A Mission is not a goal. Goals are simple things with a beginning and an end. A Mission is ongoing, preferably forever. The shortest time horizon on a Mission (if any!) is 20 years.

Work to complete a project or achieve a goal, and you may reach lack of focus or despondency after you complete it. Work to fulfill a true life Mission of which this goal is a small part, and this will never happen.

Don’t be like Iacocca. Well, wait. Do be like Iacocca, but make sure you’re like him in a constant, focused way that’s part of a greater whole. You’ll be a lot better off.


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