Focus means saying no

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.”

Steve Jobs

Up until about my late 30s, I took pride in saying “yes” to opportunities, absolutely filling my time relentlessly with variety and quantity of work. I used to call myself a “specialist generalist” as indeed I worked in so many countries, types and sizes of businesses that I do feel I could effectively contribute to a massive variety of roles and businesses almost anywhere. However, as time went by, I began to recognise (and friends and mentors began to strongly suggest to me) that I started to say “no” to more and more opportunities in order to focus on my own Ikigai:

  • What I am best and most uniquely suited to do
  • What I love to do
  • What the world needs

So, over the last number of years, as expressed by my website, my work is focussed on brave leaders ready for what’s next, ready to leverage bravery to make an even bigger “dent in the universe”, a phrase which yes, is another Steve Jobs phrase.

My expression of that on my website is designed not only to attract those special clients but to put off others, to effectively “say no” to leaders who are not yet ready, to those who want incremental rather than transformative change, who want to make change but not a “dent in the universe”

By having an online presence that both says who I want to say “yes” to working with and, by inference, who I will say “no” to, I have a clear focus expressed.

For the “yes” choices, this allows me to truly focus my time, energy and thought on that select group./

For the “no”, I actually spend at least half of my time in meeting with a wide range of people who are not in my client “sweet spot”, but who I can learn from and who I hope to provide some support to through listening then insights. I often then can, through my deep “specialist generalist” past experience, both point them in the right direction and also connect them to someone who does have a focus on the support they need.

PS an afterthought and example is that one reason I often use the joke (with apologies to AA/NA members): “I’m a recovering Chartered Accountant, the first step is recognising you have a problem”, is that I want to make it clear that, thought I can read a set of Financial Statements quickly and incisively, I do NOT do any accounting or finance work and haven’t for at least two decades. I can, however, work out when a client needs that type of resource and can connect them to the right people. Similarly with deep strategy and implementation work around core business value-driving areas such as Positioning, Functionality , Capacity, Culture, as a past CEO of a global business coaching firm, I have a wide network of people who have chosen their own focus on such areas. They say no to other areas, so as to say yes to their own choice of specialism.

Originally published at Tom McCallum.

Sounding Board for Leaders seeking to go from Good to Great to Elite to World Class. Daily posts here, or

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