Funny math. The Rule of 80%

80-percent2Recently, my friend and colleague Matt Norman wrote about mid-organization leaders and the critical importance to the success of a company. Matt’s insight regarding the need to free these leaders from being task doers so they can focus on leading and developing their people is spot on.

After reading that post, I was reminded of lessons learned and a couple of key “ah ha!” moments from my own career. In January of 2011, I was given the opportunity to lead the turnaround of a 110-person, $260 million unit of a large global pharmaceutical company. Like nearly all turnarounds, it took time. In the end though, the leadership team and the entire unit saw great success in improving performance and engagement. The two keys? 80% and figuring out what business we were really in.

Let me explain.

The unit our leadership team was tasked to transform had under-performed in every metric for nearly two decades. Feeling a little overwhelmed and knowing the self-doubt that was lurking in the back of my own mind, I phoned an SVP I’d previously reported to, someone who had mentored me through the years. The SVP knew the challenges of the job at hand, and I will always remember what this person said to me: “Beau, spend 80% of your time on the people, and everything else will fall into place.”

80%!!! Many Fortune 500 execs and self-made-millionaires will tell you they spent or spend about half of their time on the asset of people. But 80%?! That was exactly the SVP’s point at the end of the day. We had to become masters of elimination and use the word “no” when it came to spending time on anything—and I really do mean anything—that did not produce a return of investment towards making our people better.

Emails? Most of them, definitely not. Spreadsheets? Why duplicate what the Analytics department could provide and was already doing better than us? So, no to those, too. Forty-page quarterly business reports? Uh, I don’t think so, when the same story can be told in ten large-font, graphically oriented slides. Invitations to conference calls and meetings to talk about the same stuff we know we all talk about again and again? You guessed it, declined. Once we did this, and I really set the example as the leader of the unit, we had all kinds of time to focus on what we absolutely needed to focus on: making our people better.

This freedom led straight to the second “Ah ha!”

We all thought we were in the business of selling pharmaceuticals. In fact, every leader and leadership team of the unit before us thought the same thing. That was the problem. We were not in the business of selling pharmaceuticals. Ironically and comically, given our poor performance through the years, we were the furthest thing from it! No, once we started focusing our 80% on the right thing, then we figured out pretty quickly our true business. We were in the business of people, the business of talent.

We began to relentlessly focus on the business of our talent. Most successful turnaround stories all share common fundamentals regarding re-branding, new culture, new or clarified mission, and personnel change and/or development. This one was no different in terms of those fundamentals. What was different was the mission, created and lived by the unit: “To be the best-trained sales team in the industry.” Bold for a unit that had not been off the bottom of the company’s charts for over a decade.

Nonetheless, that was the mission, and it was the right mission. When we figured this out and really lived and breathed it in all of our actions (at least 80% of our time!), then the task of selling prescriptions ultimately became quite easy. In fact, it was merely a by-product. Over the course of five years, this unit became known as a center of excellence for innovation and consistently ranked in the top 15% of many key indicators of sales performance. All of this simply because we did two things: eliminated busy work and focused on people. That was the innovation.

Kind of funny, right?

Beau Garrett is the leader of a consulting firm that specializes in practical talent strategy. The firm provides services through Dale Carnegie. He can be reached at



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