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Leadership Focus, Karin & the Multitasking Myth

I disagree with Karin. I have for five years. And I’m hoping to win her over. Let me explain why I think this is important for my leadership effectiveness and hers.

As our business expanded five years ago, my wife and I realized that day-to-day operations were growing beyond our abilities. We are both great “starters.” Vision, energy, creating-something-out-of-nothing, putting it all on the line to make something happen: in hindsight, that’s what we did. Having the courage (or naiveté) that we could start a new business without an existing market during the “Great Recession” may not have been the best idea, but with our best energy and God’s grace, we pulled it off.

However, running the same business past the start-up phase took a different skillset. The great news for us: at the same time we recognized we needed to bring someone alongside us who was excellent at the ongoing business disciplines required to take an enterprise from post-start-up to sustainability, Karin entered our radar as a potential solution. Karin has been recognized as a “high-performer” from her very first job. Her leadership and management capabilities are unquestionable. Karin joined our team as our senior leader five years ago. It has been a wonderful partnership.

Here’s Karin’s problem: she is a habitual multitasker. She will defend powerfully her ability to do so. I’ve been at the receiving end of several (warm and engaging) disagreements with her on her ability to multitask.

Indeed, based on growing brain science research, Karin’s multitasking may be impacting her leadership performance. Here’s the problem: according to Professor Clifford Nask of Stanford University, “Habitual multitaskers may be sacrificing performance on the primary task. They are suckers for irrelevancy.” Prof. Nask and a growing chorus of experts will tell all of us: our leadership suffers when we multitask. (The truth is, our brains can’t really “multitask” – what the brain can do is “rapid task-switching” which only looks like multitasking. In reality, each time our brains “rapid task-switch” it slows us down and overloads our synapses just a bit). The more we multitask, the greater the risk we end up doing a bunch of small things poorly.

Leadership Focus

The good news for Karin is her case of multitasking is not terminal. While I indicated that I wanted to “win her over”, in reality, I think she multitasks less than she claims to. She is one of the most focused leaders I know. She regularly reminds me of the few “big things” we need to keep in the front of our minds as we grow our business together.

Indeed, at times she embodies for me what every leader needs: focus.

What are the one, two or three things that need to be on your desk this week? How do you keep them front-of-mind? As Stephen Covey once said, “how do you major on the majors?”