Leaders: Stop Trying to Be Efficient

Leaders Stop Trying to Be Efficient

Let’s cut right to the chase; stop focusing on being efficient – it’s a waste of time. Nobody other than perhaps you really cares how efficient you are, but everyone cares how effective you are. Not only do they care how effective you are, but they also care about the effectiveness of those whom you lead. It’s important to remember leadership is a people business, and people are messy. Leadership has little to do with how neat and tidy things are, but everything to do with how successful you are at scaling effectiveness.

Efficient vs. Effective – there is sometimes a very big difference between the two. So much so, that I’ve really come to cringe every time I hear the word efficiency. It’s not really that there’s anything wrong with becoming more efficient, but far too many executives major in the minors when it comes to efficiency. Stop focusing on optics over outcomes. Don’t worry about how you look, worry about the results you produce.

Let me ask you a question – Have you become so efficient that you’ve rendered yourself ineffective? At an organizational level, have you focused so much on process improvements and incremental gains that you’ve failed to engage people, and seek opportunities to be disruptive? Are you efficient or effective, or do you know?

I really don’t have a problem with increasing efficiency so long as the tail doesn’t start wagging the dog. If you’re a baseball player who has beautifully efficient swing mechanics, but you can’t hit the ball – who cares? If efficiency starts diluting productivity rather than increasing it, something is woefully amiss.  This is more than an issue of semantics – it’s become a systemic problem with many individuals and organizations. Here’s the thing – process in and of itself was never engineered to be the outcome, it was designed to support the creation of the right outcomes.

If you’re not tracking with me yet, ask yourself the following questions: Do you send an email when you should make a phone call, or worse, do you hide behind the phone when you should be face-to-face? Even worse yet – the leader who sends a message by proxy when it should have been delivered personally. Do your sophisticated screening processes do such a great job of filtering they blind you to new opportunities and critical information? If your desk is so clean you don’t have anything to work on then you might be focusing on the wrong thing – it might be time to make a bit of a mess (see Leadership Is About Breaking Things).

What I want you to recognize is sometimes the least efficient thing can lead to the most productive outcome. A great example of this would be carving out time in your already too busy schedule to mentor someone in your organization. Clearly this endeavor will take time, and may not yield immediate results, but the payoff organizationally, relationally, culturally, and in terms of future contribution can be huge.

As I’ve said many times before, things don’t always have to boil down to either/or types of decisions – not everything must end-up on the altar of sacrificial decisioning. With the proper perspective and focus it is quite possible to be both efficient and effective. Efficient process can enable effective resource utilization. The two concepts can co-exist so long as the focus remains on the proper thing – results. Smart leaders don’t just focus on moving the needle, they focus on moving the right needles, at the right times, and for the right reasons.

Bottom line – check your motivations. When you ever so efficiently cross something off your to-do list has it moved you farther away from, or closer to, putting points on the board? Better yet, are the items on your to-do list even the right items to begin with? Lastly, I’ll leave you with this reminder – leadership is not about how many emails, memos and transmittals are sent under your signature – it’s about relationships, service, and engagement.


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    October 26, 2010 at 9:44 am

    Mike, *thank you* for making this very important distinction.

    A mouse running on a mousewheel can perfect their stride and reduce the amount of energy it takes to get "moving." If the goal is to get somewhere the mouse is efficiently ineffective.

    I can use a hand grenade to kill a mosquito. It ain't efficient but it sure is effective.



    Travis Standley

    March 16, 2012 at 7:59 am

    I appreciate the comparison. Efficiency is often about cost (both monetary and time) while effectiveness is about growth, development, and creativity. Perhaps efficiency increases only as our effectiveness does so.

      Mike Myatt

      March 16, 2012 at 11:34 am

      Brilliant comparison Travis – I wish I would have chosen to use those same words. Thanks for adding value to the thought stream Travis.

    Angela Bisignano

    March 16, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Great post Mike. I agree, leadership is about “relationships, service, and engagement.”

    Mike Myatt

    March 16, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Agreed – better when both are present so long as the focus is on effectiveness. 

    Marquis Sims

    December 19, 2012 at 4:33 am

    I want to begin with a thank you sir, yet this shook my world just reading upon this yet I’ve been totally unfocused as of lately. I’ve been investing time into the wrong things. Sometimes motivation can get a bit weak but its a must we dig deep down to figure out where motivation began in the first place. A list is made but the plan can not be such a bright one. I need 2013 to be the beginning of true success as a young entrepreneur yet a young leader by building relationships, giving the best I can and engaging with my circle.

      Mike Myatt

      December 19, 2012 at 4:15 pm

      Thanks for the kind words Marquis. Best wishes for a successful 2013 Sir.


    December 31, 2012 at 9:17 am

    Hm, I see those terms the other way round. efficient menas: rech the SAME effect with less effort (time, money, stress). So I’d argue exactly the opposite way than you do …

      Jennifer Merello-Deason

      January 9, 2013 at 5:55 pm

      I think you misinterpreted the author’s message. Of course a good leader needs to maintain an efficient work ethic in order to be the most effective. However, a great leader wouldn’t question his efficiency SO much that it renders him ineffective.


    January 8, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    A great reminder to re-direct for 2013.


    January 9, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Mike: By this time, I am agree with you in terms of freedom of the leader and the excessive use of general concepts as efficient, effective, Manager, leader, etc, that if same, mean nothing, because they do not exist. There are people who are capable of influencing people with his ability. If they succeed effortlessly and continuously, in my opinion, are leaders. From what I’ve seen you are in third position of the leaders, which seems unfair to me. Congratulations.,

      Mike Myatt

      January 9, 2013 at 7:05 pm

      Not sure how to take this, but If you’re asking me to apologize for being in a position of influence, it’s not likely to happen. I try to use what influence I’ve been given to help people become better at equipping others to be better.


        January 10, 2013 at 7:37 am

        Mike: Excites Me his humility but not be if it is sincere. From my position outside USA, it seems to me that the world is to the upside. Mediocrity and inability to govern the world, while people like you and me, preach in the desert and our message is lost in the wind of the misunderstanding. Do you think that this situation has a solution?. It is a real shame we’re worlds separated, I I enjoy it much debating with people like you at the same table.

        2013/1/10 Disqus

    William Hagerman

    September 24, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    It’s one thing to be effective, it’s another thing to be efficient. However, it would nice that they go hand in hand. You can have a great supervisor in place that effectively manages his/her department to achieve all tasks as scheduled for a given period, and measured on this, they pass with flying colors. However, at the same time, the team may be totally inefficient. I see it everywhere, i.e., where organizations fail to optimize their processes and rely heavily on manual efforts, detailed reviews, analytics, etc., to finish their assigned tasks. Team members spend endless hours to meet those goals, irrespective of the cost to complete, yet receive kudos “task well done” when complete. Simply wasted productivity! Unfortunately, this is an accepted “status quo” in many organizations, which from my perspective, is unacceptable. There will be a time, when you will be replaced if you are not more efficient at your job. So to me, as a leader, not only must you be effective, you need to always strive to improve efficiency. “And that’s the name of that tune.”

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