One of the most difficult conversations I have with my clients is the need to develop a focused strategic agenda. Most business leaders are optimistic – and a little greedy – and wish to bite off more than their organisation can reasonably chew. As a result, initiatives aren’t properly resourced and find it difficult to get going against the competition of other, similarly important projects. As a result, progress is slow and the anticipated improvement in performance fails to materialise.


The response of many CEOs is that the business is big enough to get it all done, no matter how many priorities they set out. But, even in the biggest organisations, my experience is that the ability to make choices, focus on a few priorities and put less important ideas to one side is the key differentiator between fast-paced market leaders and the ‘also-rans’.


So, here are a few quotes from some of the world’s best business leaders. If you want your business to do everything, maybe these quotes will help you pause for thought!


  • Another thing to watch out for is taking on too many projects… But in company after company, the appetite is much bigger than the ability to digest, and wrong decisions get made. Too much is taken on that doesn’t come to fruition.” Larry Bossidy, ex-CEO and Chairman of Honeywell International, from Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done
  • If we think long-term we can accomplish things that we wouldn’t otherwise accomplish. Time horizons matter. They matter a lot!” A quote from Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, that you can’t do everything at once. Even though Bezos’s initial vision for Amazon was for ‘the everything store’, he started, very simply, with books and only added other products once that was working well.
  • Do I really want to be a bank? No, not really. I have got this lot to manage. That is not to say that you don’t look at these things, but I think you have to keep the business pretty mono-focused on what you want to achieve.” Allan Leighton, from a 1997 interview with Management Today when he was CEO of Asda
  • My first impression was that Boots no longer stood for anything. The company was a jack-of-all-trades and was going nowhere. My priority was to refocus the retailer on health and beauty; I wanted to put ‘The Chemists’ back into Boots. When it comes to strategy, you can’t spray and sprint!” Richard Baker, former CEO of Boots the Chemists, in an interview for my book, First and Fast
  • If there is any one secret of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.” Peter Drucker, the doyen of management writers, from his book, The Effective Executive

And, of course, there is the master of focus, Steve Jobs. Here are just a few of his quotes on this subject…..


  • I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.”
  • It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much.
  • We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.
  • People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.


Finally, focus doesn’t mean having things easy. Far from it. Focus should lead to demanding results and the relentless pursuit of higher performance. As Jack Welch, the ex-CEO of GE, once put it, “An overburdened, overstretched executive is the best executive because he or she doesn’t have the time to meddle, to deal in trivia, to bother people!


Finding the most productive combination of focus and stretch is what the art of management is all about.


© Stuart Cross 2019. All rights reserved.