The Most Puzzling Paradox in Leadership Today

29 Nov. 2012 | Comments (0)

In 1906, Vilfredo Pareto discovered that 80% of the peas in his garden were produced by just 20% of the peapods. As an economist and engineer, he was curious to understand and learn why. As he pursued his curiosity, he began to uncover other incidences where this ratio seemed to apply. For instance, he learned that 80% of the land in Italy at the time was owned by 20% of the population.  Recognizing the general significance of this phenomenon, business management consultant, Joseph Juran, further developed the principle and applied it to business, concluding that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. He named the principle after Pareto, and it is now commonly known as the Pareto Principle, or the “80/20 rule.” 

In management, the Pareto Principle is often taken to imply that 20% of your people produce 80% of the results. This can be debated furiously, but that’s not the point. Here’s what is really fascinating: If you were to break down the amount of time that leaders spend on their subordinates, I would argue that many leaders end up spending 80% of their time on just 20% of their employees. However, here’s the most puzzling paradox in leadership today: Do leaders spend 80% of their time on those 20% of the people who are producing 80% of the results—the top fifth of performers among their teams? No. In fact, they often do the opposite: They spend the majority of their time on the bottom 20% of their people.

It’s an easy enough trap to fall into for leaders. We all tend to focus on what’s broken and try to fix it, rather than concentrating on what’s running smoothly.  However, this is a must-avoid mistake. Think about it: If you make a herculean effort to turn around your poor performers, can you turn them into productive employees? Maybe, maybe not. Meanwhile, your time spent on these reclamation projects means that you’re missing opportunities to provide mentoring, recognition, and support to your peak performers—the very people that you want to retain, promote, and keep energized.

Paul Muench—a school teacher, who is also a friend of mine—coined the phrase “save the saved” in a story he told me one day concerning his dad’s advice to him. Like his dad before him, Paul is a revered and beloved teacher. He is a peer leader among the faculty in one of the top school systems in the state of New York. When Paul started teaching high school social studies he was discouraged because he was unable to get four kids in his class of twenty-five charged up about learning, despite his best efforts. He turned to his dad for advice. His father asked Paul, “How much time are you spending on these four kids in relation to the top four in your class?” Paul thought for a moment, and then stated, “At least three times as much time.” Paul’s dad smiled, looked directly into Paul’s eyes, and said, “That’s the problem, Paul; save the saved first. Then, you will have peer disciples who will help you save the rest.”  

It works the same way in business. As a leader who is committed to spreading your powerful message, you should begin the process of leveraging the power of your communication by focusing first on the 20% of your leadership team who will get it, and who will spread it quickly and effectively. The common cliché, “Don’t preach to the converted,” does not apply here.  That’s exactly what you want to do. Preach your powerful message to the ones who will then preach in kind, and the cascading effect will pick up speed. 

As a leader, your disciples are the top 20% of your people who are yearning to understand your vision, who want to take what is inside you and make it reality. They are the self-motivated stars on the edge of their seats, just waiting to be charged up by your clear, simple, and powerful message. They are eager to charge forward armed with your vision and their peer-leading capabilities. Most importantly, they are often uniquely able to broadcast your message in a powerful way because they are the high achievers, respected by others in your organization. They are the ones who always excel and always challenge themselves to be the best. When you focus your time and attention on them, you are investing in your own success. When these top disciples believe in you, they will walk through fire to do what is necessary to achieve what you have inspired them to set out to achieve. 

As you think about how you manage your time as a busy leader, make sure you’re “saving the saved” by devoting most of your manager/subordinate time to your all-star performers—rather than to your perennial underachievers.

 

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  • About the Author: David Casullo

    David  Casullo David Casullo is president at Bates Communications, a national consulting firm specializing in leadership communication skills and strategy. His passion is developing leaders who have the courage and …

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