Checkers and chess. Both are games of skill. Both have winners and losers.
While they share the same playing surface, if you sit down with a friend to play, it’s entirely clear which set of rules you should be using, based on the pieces on the board.
In business, it’s not that simple.
It’s Monday morning and you sit down at your desk.
Should this week’s focus be on steps toward securing the partnership that could be the key to opening up that new market segment that’s so promising (“chess”), or on how to fill the open slot on the development team who’s work is slipping (“checkers”)?
In some idealized textbook world, both happen in parallel: You as leader focus on the “big picture” strategic issues, your team on the executional tactics.
Not in the real world.
Here, what you focus on matters. It sets the priority. Your team notices, and that’s where they focus. (That's even before you get to the issue of your incremental experience and ability to contribute to the best outcome.)
If you meet with the hiring manager and her HR partner to discuss the open slot, their efforts to fill it take on a different level of urgency. If you meet with the candidates, you’re more likely to land the top prospect.
Conversely, if you leave the job of laying out the critical strategic partnership framework with your Director of Business Development, the deal is less likely to come together than if you are a hands-on participant in the process.
Substitute any set of “checkers” and “chess” issues, and the challenge as to where to focus is the same:
- The design review, or the new product strategy meeting?
- The customer visit, or the next generation go-to-market innovation council presentation?
- The current parts shortage or the long term cost reduction initiative?
- The compensation plan or alternatives for opening up South America?
As a team, you need to win at both strategy and tactics, chess and checkers. Which means that as a leader, of a team large or small, you have to lead in both.
My purpose here is to get you to think about that. To think how you’re balancing your time. To realize that you don’t win big in the long term without a well conceived strategy — but that you never even get to the long term without excellence in execution.
Chances are, you’re naturally drawn to one game more than the other. Me, I’m a bit more of a chess guy. I know plenty of more natural (and skilled) checkers players. That’s why, a couple of years ago, one early morning in a Starbucks, before my first cup of coffee, I bought a small, brass-covered magnetic travel game of checkers. It’s sitting on my desk to this day, to remind me to make sure to think about playing checkers each and every day, with at least as much effort as playing chess.
Think about it.
Oh, and yes, also know when it's time to stop playing, and time to sit down with your wife for a glass of wine… which it is here, and now.