"Keep your eye on the ball!" This common phrase is often associated with the world of athletic competitions, whether it be baseball, tennis, or football. A player needs to know where the "ball" is at all times so they can react to it and move to where it is at any given time. This is good advice in sports...in business...and in life.
So why does this phrase need to keep getting repeated? Why would a well-seasoned athlete ever take their eye off the ball? How can one, after years and years of instruction and practice, ever take their eye off the ball? The answer is very simple...distractions. The crowd...the opposing player...the score...one's own issues...perhaps even a bird flying overhead could make one take their eye off the ball. Whatever it is, once the player takes their eye off the ball, nothing seems to go right.
And so it is with leaders - once they take their eye off of the proverbial ball within their organization, things can go awry. For me, the question is not so much whether or not one is taking their eye off the ball, but whether one knows what ball they should be watching. A classic example in my field of work is the difference between total enrollment and net tuition revenue. Universities and colleges have multiple ways in which they recruit and enroll students, including discounting the total tuition and partnering with other organizations to help with the recruiting and enrollment...all of which goes to say that the sticker price of higher education for each student does not reflect the revenue the organization will realize from each student. When someone asks me how the enrollment looks for the year, I can give one answer...if they would think to ask me how our net tuition revenue is, I might have a different answer. The real question is...what am I keeping my eye on?
While each organization is different, it seems to me that leaders should be keeping their eye on that which matters most for the future health of the organization...what is it that will determine what can be done next year, and what is needed to ensure that the organization is still here in 5-10 years. In the early days of Amazon, if the only measure of success had been quarterly profits, we would not be reaping the benefits of Amazon Prime right now. Jeff Bezos knew what he needed to keep his eye on, although it was difficult to convince others that he was actually watching the right thing.
My theory for today is that leaders tend to keep their eye on that which matters most to them, not necessarily what matters most to the long-term health of the organization. Knowing what that measurement is is an important part of any organization (and often one must keep their eye on more than one ball at a time). How do you know which ball to watch? That's the question the leader and the team must answer...and then must always remind themselves to "keep their eye on the ball."