The 5 Focus Factors of High-Performance Leaders

It’s all about the Leadership! Always!

During my two year tenure as Chairman of Sales and Marketing Executives International, I visited many of the local affiliates. Some were doing well and some were not! The reason always became crystal clear when I attended an affiliate board meeting. A strong board with a good leader equaled a solid, value-generating affiliate with good membership and strong meeting attendance. A weak board with weak leadership knew how to whine.

The same was true as I moved around during my time with IBM. The difference the leaders made to overall performance was clear within IBM, as well as across the many IBM customers with whom I had an association. Since then, as a business advisor, I have continued to witness the dramatic effect that leaders have – good and bad – across a variety of industries as I have worked with numerous organizations of all sizes in the US, Canada and the UK.

But likely, nothing I have said so far is news to you. You undoubtedly have numerous war stories yourself about your associations with both good and poor leaders. You know the difference the effectiveness of leadership has made in terms of your own performance, job satisfaction, and quality of your work life – not to mention the tangential effect on the quality of your non-work life.

It is blatantly clear why so many books have been written about leadership. But, as with so many things, it all comes down to some timeless basics In college, my Principles of Management course taught me that management was about Organizing, Planning, Staffing, Delegating and Controlling (Koontz and O’Donnell). I get it! These are still principles that good managers follow ̶ but they are about managing, not leading. Much later, I discovered that leadership (my favorite definition) is about having a vision and communicating it in a way that inspires others to achieve it. Management, then, is about keeping the path clear and transverse-able while leadership is about setting new paths to new destinations.

There is a reason our People-powered Performance model rests on a fulcrum of Leadership. Leadership is the center of gravity. When leadership is positioned correctly and doing the right things in the right way, then all is in balance. But shift the fulcrum just a little and the center of gravity changes. The entire model (organization) tilts. Things slide off as people divert energy trying to right themselves and, hopefully, whatever part of the organization they can impact. Of course, there are those people who won’t expend any energy to right the ship but prefer to simply curse the Captain. (How did those people get hired anyway?)

Like the five principles of management, we have identified and evolved our Five Focus Factors of High-Performance Leaders. Five is a good number. People can remember 5 things. It’s when the gurus start talking about 18 or 42 factors that affect leadership that we all get lost in machinations so complex that even when we get it to make sense, we can’t get it to work. We just don’t have the time or inclination to expend energy in an attempt to simplify what should have been simple at the start. In the 18 years since the 5 Focus Factors first appeared (albeit not under that name) in our first leadership survey, we have found no leadership characteristic, idea or fad of the month that did not fit into one of the 5 Factors.

From the beginning, our leadership concepts were developed to accomplish a single objective: to create a work environment in which the right people will provide extraordinary levels of discretionary effort to achieve a vision to which they are inspired and committed. It is the ability to elicit high levels of discretionary effort from talented people that defines true competitive advantage and separates the market leaders from the also-rans. I use the term market leader because it’s not necessarily about being the international industry leader. It’s just about being number one in your market. Of course, if you are number one in your market, you will likely feel great pressure to expand and perhaps evolve into that international industry leader. Who knows? Great things result from great leadership!

The graph below depicts our 5 Focus Factors of High Performance Leaders™. We will look more closely at each of them.

Five Focus Factors

Vision & Inspiration

Inspiring a vision is the differentiator between managers and leaders. Managers tend to worry about motivating their people and attempt all kinds of attention-getting “motivators” none of which make up for a job that isn’t liked, work that denies a sense of personal satisfaction, a boss that isn’t credible, nor a work environment that depresses.

One of my first consulting engagements, after leaving IBM, was with a systems integrator. The owner had successfully built and sold a software company and now had a nice profitable business offering a badly needed service. He engaged us to do a customer satisfaction survey. Rather than presupposing what the issues might be, we decided a use a few open ended questions and see where things went. Taking an unexpected turn, the survey responses took us into company’s work environment. We would have expected this from an employee survey but not from a customer survey. The level of employee dissatisfaction clearly affected the customers’ perception of the company’s ability to deliver over the long term.

Despite, the high level of dissatisfaction, employee turnover was very low. It seems everyone was paid well above the industry average. Because the money was so good, employees wouldn’t leave but tried to stick it out just a little while longer. This just-a-little-while-longer just kept getting longer, and the longer it got the greater the level of dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, the CEO/owner thought that since everyone was paid so well, he could treat them any way he wanted. Would you care to take a stab at how much discretionary effort these people brought to their work product? They were all about not getting screamed at and going home as soon as possible. External motivators, in this example money, are at best short term fixes.

Leaders create an environment similar to that which causes people to voluntarily rally around a cause in which they believe. Leaders understand that people are internally motivated and their job as the leader is to inspire them.

Here is sampling of things inspiring vision setters do. How do you stack up?

  • creates a climate which encourages excellence
  • creates a constant awareness of organization goals and priorities
  • fulfills commitments made
  • involves those affected in the setting of goals
  • effectively provides a sense of direction
  • introduces new ways to do things so we constantly get better
  • demonstrates high integrity and trustworthiness
  • keeps us focused on the big picture
  • inspires to achieve
  • is composed when facing setbacks or is under pressure
  • accepts constructive criticism and seeks ways to improve
  • fosters a culture of integrity throughout the unit

These are some of the things that high-performance leaders do regardless of their level in the organization or the size of their own organization. Notice the thread of credibility and trust that winds through this list.


Having a vision is of little value without an ability to communicate it in a way that inspires others to achieve it, or, at least brings focus to it as a credible idea. As they say “90% of the world’s problems are caused by poor communication.” Then there’s the 10% that we experientially know “never get the word”.

The free flow of information is one of the building blocks of an agile organization. How can someone make the right decision at the right time without the information necessary to do so? Playing things close to the vest may be a critical attribute of an experienced poker player but how closely does your business represent a poker game? Poker is not a team endeavor (people have been shot for attempting to make it so). Your business is a team venture. Open communication displays trust in your people and is a powerful element in inspiring people to achieve your vision – which, through effective communication, you make their vision.

Here is a sampling of things high performance communicators are prone to do

  • address issues honestly and directly
  • listen
  • avoid sending mixed messages
  • be open to opposing points of view
  • encourage others to initiate communications
  • understand others’ perspectives when discussing problems
  • verbally convey thoughts in a clear, articulate manner
  • leave others feeling energized and motivated after communicating

While each of the above is integral to high-performance leadership, ineffectiveness in any of the top three can be particularly deadly.

As we work with various sized organizations across virtually all industries, we often see low scores in response to the statement: avoids sending mixed messages. Communication takes many forms including maintaining consistent alignment to the vision. While this may seem obvious, once again, it’s not about knowing what to do, it’s about doing it. It is not uncommon to see managers tell their people to do one thing while being seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are being compensated, or otherwise incented, to do otherwise. The confusion caused by these types of conflicting messages can easily enable a loss of focus and misalignment of resources that can destroy any competitive advantage gained in product superiority.

There was period in IBM’s history when the strategy was to have its three marketing divisions competing with each other. The thought was to have customers making a decision among IBM solutions rather than competitive alternatives. Talk about mixed messages – to the customer. No one in IBM was positioned to advise the customer as to which solution was best for them. The result was confused customers who unable to decipher the best IBM approach, often looked to a company that didn’t send mixed messages.

Decision Making

It should be apparent that while Vision & Inspiration and Communication are distinctly different factors, they depend on each other in a symbiotic relationship whereby the value of each becomes seriously diminished without the other. Let’s now add Decision Making as the third inter-dependent link.

Vision, complemented by values, casts the light of correctness on a decision. Obviously, open, effective communication has a huge bearing as to whether the information necessary to make the best decision has been made available to the decision maker. Carrying equal weight with the correctness of a decision is its timeliness and speed. Rapid, accurate decision making is the third requirement of an agile organization. It is the practical manifestation of the other two components: clear vision/direction and free flow of information.

It is evident that some decision makers have a strong need to be right, tend to be very risk adverse and require a great deal of information and analysis. It is equally evident others are perfectly willing to take a risk, require limited information and believe that what is important is taking action. Their premise is that If the decision is wrong, we can fix it later.

A while ago, I was asked to determine the underlying reasons that a subsidiary company was not performing well. The fault was naturally being placed at the feet of the subsidiary’s president. The question was: can it be fixed? Armed with insight from the results of the entire executive team’s participation in our Leadership Performance Survey as well as the development of Team Profile Graph, we were able to specifically and easily zero in on the problem.

The president took some hits on Decision Making. Voicing surprise he said “I don’t get it. I’m a good decision maker. I make sure I understand my options, weigh the alternatives, get input form others and then make the best available decision.” Now, here’s where the Team Profile Graph comes in. The president was in the lower 30% of the population in terms of his propensity to make a fast decision. In other words, he was more risk adverse with a stronger need to be right that some 70% of the working population. He never really could get enough information. On the other hand, every member of his executive team was in the upper 17% of the population – ready, willing and able to make to decision now based on whatever information was available.

When I pointed this out, the president proclaimed, “That’s right! Those guys always want to shoot from the hip.” “Yes!” I countered, “and to them you always want to drag your feet!” The next step was to pull the team together and find a solution. Armed with the insight we had into the problem, the solution evolved fairly easily.

Decision making is largely about the consequence of being wrong. The VP’s agreed that there were times when they should be willing to invest more time and effort into the decision process – more as the president was prone to do. When were those times? How about when the consequence of being wrong had the potential of severely detrimental results? On the other hand, there were times when the president should just go ahead and make the decision, or better yet, delegate it. Those times would be when a wrong decision was easy to fix.

So, by understanding that the issue underlying the company’s poor performance was rooted in decision making –but, not decision making techniques, this was not a skills issue, it was a traits compatibility issue – we were able to rather simply turn individual differences, that had been causing serious conflict, into complementary attributes and build a more cohesive team.

Here is a sampling of things high performance decision makers are prone to do:

  • take responsibility for his or her decisions
  • make decisions in a timely manner
  • consider both short and long term implications of a decision
  • follow decisions with action
  • allow those affected to make decisions
  • use effective problem solving methods
  • consider innovative, new ideas
  • ask the right questions
  • get to the heart of an issue
  • resolve issues and conflicts fairly
  • make it clear why decisions are made and how they affect others
  • anticipate and adapt to change
  • use a participative decision making style

Staffing & Development

Earlier I stated “It’s all about the Leadership! Always!” Allow me to now expand that and say “It’s all about the people! Always!” High performance leaders understand this. They know it’s first about them as leaders and then, it’s about the organization they build.

During my workshop “7 Steps to High Performance Staffing”, I often ask the participants: ”given the choice between right strategies or right people, which would you pick?” Overwhelming, the answer comes back “right people”. We seem to innately know that the best strategies are wasted if executed by ineffectual people. On the other hand, the right people will fix bad strategies.

This thought is a key premise of Jim Collin’s classic “Good to Great”. To paraphrase Collins: great companies first get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and then they figure out where to drive it. There is a lesser quoted premise in “Good to Great” that I think is even more impactful. Again paraphrasing: the first time you feel the need to manage someone, you know you’ve made a hiring mistake. Gee, is Collins saying we shouldn’t have to manage people? What a concept! Yet, we don’t really manage our A-players do we? They know what to do! They do it – and more! They do want needs to be done and then anticipate and do what needs to be done next. A-players provide high levels of discretionary effort. That, combined with the positive impact they have on the performance of others, is what makes them A-players.

Again, from our work across industries, we find time and again that about 1/3 of the people generate 2/3’s of the results. This is really easy to see in sales since we measure individual sales performance so well. This 1/3 premise holds true for virtually every function in an organization. Any good manager can tell you who the top performing third of the people are, and who the bottom third are. All you have to do is ask how big the performance gap is between those two groups and how the business would change if the bottom third made a contribution identical to that of the top third. Invariably, the result would be a double, triple or quadruple of results with virtually no increase in expense. Wow!

Here is a sampling of things high performance leaders are prone to do to staff and develop their people:

  • identifies and staffs the team with exceptional people
  • knows what competencies are needed (expertise, traits, and character)
  • is able to keep exceptional people on the team
  • let’s people know where they stand regarding their performance
  • discusses professional ambitions and aspirations
  • provides opportunities for professional growth
  • shows concern for each person as an individual
  • shows trust and confidence
  • recognizes initiative and imagination
  • addresses performance issues promptly and fairly
  • gives enough freedom to do the job
  • gives recognition & expresses appreciation appropriately


While High Performance Leaders seek new destinations and plot new paths, they also know they have to maintain what’s already working – today’s cash cow. At the risk of oversimplifying, leadership is about effectiveness, management is about efficiency. We lead people. We manage resources. Management is about operations. However, since operations cannot usually be run without people, it is hard to totally isolate management from leadership. Following is a good sampling of things that high performance managers do. You will likely see several points where management and leadership shake hands.

  • uses meetings effectively
  • encourages start-to-finish responsibility for a job
  • holds individuals appropriately accountable for their results
  • focuses on solutions rather than blame when things go wrong
  • remains available to consult on difficult tasks
  • provides a clear understanding of what a quality job is
  • effectively balances activities and workload within the unit
  • measures results against clearly understood standards
  • is aware of what I am doing and how I am doing it
  • gets me the resources and supplies I need to be effective
  • effectively balances quality and quantity
  • removes barriers that interfere with my job
  • effectively determines what resources are needed to do a job
  • delegates the right assignments to the right people
  • shows a clear understanding of the needs of my job
  • is consistent in enforcing policies


The 5 Focus Factors are easy to remember and easy to understand. Not so easy, however, to consistently execute. They do take focus – a constant awareness of how things are and how you want them to be. Under each of the 5 Focus Factors, we have listed several high-impact things that High Performance Leaders do. You may use these as a self-assessment to get a feel for how you think you stack up. Of course, whether your perception and self-rating reflects reality remains to be answered.

To discover your personal Leadership Index, our Performance Leadership Survey assesses not only your effectiveness as a leader, but also the effectiveness of your workplace and the degree to which trust, or lack thereof, affects performance. Our Leadership Performance Survey can provide your Leadership Index, Workplace Index and Trust Index.

No one knows better what you need to do to be a better leader, than do your followers. For information on one of our most popular keynotes, “Learning to Lead From Your Followers™”, just call 214-484-2010 or email