Martyn Drake: Sometimes we need to reset and decide what's most important

A visit to a previous client provided a lesson for both of us

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

One of the things that I don’t do anything like as much as I should is to revisit my clients two or three years after a project to see how they’ve got on.

I can imagine readers who are involved in impact measurement rolling their eyes at that observation, and maybe rightly so. How do any of us know how effective our work has been unless we assess it over the longer term?

Indeed, that was the reason I started to do it, but it’s not the reason I’ve decided to do it more often.

A little while ago I met up with the chief executive of a charity I’d worked with two years previously. As I travelled down on the train, I looked through the final summary from the project. We’d gone from a vast array of ideas to five big initiatives, each of which had a seven-figure income potential, a passionate owner and a pretty solid plan to develop them further.

With all that in place, I was confident they’d have made great strides, and sure enough, once we’d dispensed with the obligatory small talk, I was delighted to hear that two of the initiatives were flying along and getting great results.

But that delight was fairly short-lived as I asked about the other three. The passionate owner of two of them had left the charity when they started to flounder, and the other one seemed to have dropped off the agenda entirely.

The biggest surprise, for both of us as it turned out, was that none of those three had made their way back onto the agenda.

Sixty per cent of the potential that project had identified had quietly slipped off the table and out of the conversation. And this wasn’t some rookie, inexperienced chief executive; she remains one of the sharpest and most accomplished leaders I’ve met in the sector – in any sector, actually.

So how did it happen? How did she and her team take their eyes so far off the ball?

By the end of our conversation, she had a plan to tackle all three missing initiatives, but the experience reminded me of a story told by Richard Rumelt in his book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy.

It goes like this: in 1890, Frederick Winslow Taylor, one of the earliest management consultants, was at a cocktail party in Pittsburgh, where he was introduced to the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Upon hearing what he did, a sceptical Carnegie said scathingly: "Young man, if you can tell me something about management that is worth hearing, I will send you a cheque for $10,000."

Taylor replied simply: "I would advise you to make a list of the ten most important things you can do. And then start doing number one."

A week later, Carnegie sent Taylor a cheque for $10,000, the equivalent of a quarter of a million in today’s money.

Whether or not the story is apocryphal is irrelevant. Despite already being one of the world’s most successful leaders, what Carnegie got from the exercise was the same as the chief executive got from her conversation with me: a prompt to revisit, reset and re-engage with her big priorities.

She had taken her eye off them for precisely the same reason that I hadn’t revisited her for those intervening two years. I had other projects, new people to meet, new challenges to overcome professionally and personally – the myriad urgent distractions of the here and now.

From time to time, we all need that prompt: to step out of the trees and see the woods, to make that list of a half-dozen things that are the most important and to start work again on number one.

You can keep the $10,000, but please take this as your prompt.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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