The “Unfocused” CEO
In November, The Baltimore Sun published an article about Kevin Plank, founder of the well-known company Under Armour, that refers to a “secret” of sorts. That secret being referred to is Plank’s lack of focus on his brand, and his company, which he goes on to explain was one of the causes of UA’s poor financial performance in 2017. The article refers to the many distractions — other projects he was pursuing including Sagamore Rye Distillery, horse racing, and a massive real estate development project in Port Covington, which interfered with his focus and attention toward Under Armour. At the end of 2017, Under Armour’s stock prices were at the lowest they’ve been since the company went public in 2005.
While the scale of this story and situation are quite large, it’s really no different than the challenges many CEO’s of small businesses also face –I like to use the analogy of the circus plate spinner. CEO’s often have their attention divided between many places — finances, operations, development, marketing, etc. Each of these represents a plate on a stick, of which the CEO must continue to shift their attention back and forth to keep the plate spinning before it falls. In Plank’s situation, the big plate in the middle that may have had the facade of spinning itself REALLY slowed down and almost fell.
CEO’s and entrepreneurs are often driven by the excitement of something new and novel. They are passionate creators and visionaries. Our brains are filled with neurotransmitters that basically fuel the brain for these types of activities; during excitement and creation, these chemicals are abundant. Though when the excitement dies down, and the projects become more task and maintenance oriented, CEO’s need to rely on strong executive functioning skills to keep their businesses on the right track. One of those necessary skills is “shifting” which requires us to switch our attention back and forth between multiple things — like the plate spinner. After a while, when plate spinning gets really easy, it becomes boring, less interesting, and then just a task.
So what’s the CEO to do? This raises the importance of making sure to surround oneself with solid employees who compliment your strengths, and don’t necessarily have the same ones; many people are excellent task-doers and enjoy the gratification of checking something off the to-do list. It’s important to have detail-oriented, system-focused individuals around you as well, that can get in the weeds where the CEO might flounder and get lost. The importance of external strategies, whether a person or a device, is extremely valuable to high-level executives to support their strengths and abilities in ways that they may not be able to do alone. And the obvious solution, or maybe not so obvious, is not to divide your attention in too many places at one time.