In business, one skill rises above all others in determining how much success will occur: choosing the right task to work on next.
Let me explain why I came to that conclusion.
While working as director of strategic planning for a Fortune 200 company, I recall a time when my list of "official" assignments had 112 items on it. As you can imagine, I wasn't going to get around to doing most of those tasks, even if I just delegated them.
On the one hand, I felt a lot of pressure to do some of the tasks because of what others had said to me. Some people felt their careers were at stake. Others thought that disasters were pending that could be avoided. On the other hand, I realized that even some of these tasks weren't worth doing.
If I had a third hand, I would have noticed that some of the most important tasks for the company weren't on my list... or anyone else's. Oops!
If I had been a person concerned about making maximum career progress, the task list would have been short and clear. I would have just done tasks for those who could promote me. Since I was a pretty senior person in the company, there weren't many of those people... just two. I could have just focused on what they most wanted done each day. They gave me few assignments, and they were usually easy ones.
In assessing my judgment, realize that I was quite a young man at the time -- in my twenties -- with limited experience. Chances are good that some of what I thought I knew was wrong, and much of what I didn't know was invisible to me. If some of those things were important, they weren't going to receive the right attention from me.
If I were totally determined to work on the right tasks, how could I possibly fill in all the gaps concerning my incorrect views and my ignorance? Clearly, I needed to get help from those who were more knowledgeable. Who were those people? In the pre-Internet days, it was hard to find out. Even today, it's still pretty difficult.
In most cases, people remain focused on just what they know... or think they know. That's a big mistake. Such an approach may mean painting yourself into a corner and building in high walls around it so that you cannot easily look or go elsewhere.
Inside of an organization, there's not much room to roam. However, as long as you don't misrepresent yourself in terms of what your authority is, there's very little to constrain you from wandering around quite a bit outside your organization. And much of what's most valuable to learn will develop from such wanderings.
Let me share one of my experiences while working in this role. Our company's senior executives were in disagreement about the relative merits of focusing on various performance measures for the firm and its individual operating units. Without some clear evidence, our focus was going to remain muddled.
I noticed that Professor Peter F. Drucker, who had founded the discipline of management, was going to be teaching about a hundred miles away and that there was going to be a brief question-and-answer session at the end of his lecture. I determined to attend and to ask about performance measures. Due to his great reputation with our management team, whatever Professor Drucker preferred was bound to determine what measures our company would use.
Feeling confident I had the right answer, I just assumed that I would receive the confirmation I needed to point the company in the right direction.
Was I ever wrong!
Despite there being several hundred people in attendance, I was delighted when Professor Drucker called on me during the final session. I asked him which of the three measures that we were debating was best.
He briefly paused before responding that no single measure of business performance was of much value by itself. Businesspeople should seek to find as many measures as possible and use them all. "Each one will teach you something you need to know."
In those few seconds, I learned more about business than I had in total up to that moment. Although my motive for asking the question wasn't the best, my wandering was very well rewarded.
Since then, I've learned that the best thing to work on is finding out what better-informed people know about the things that I am responsible for accomplishing.
The point sounds like an obvious one, but it certainly wasn't obvious to me before my encounter with Professor Drucker.
Even if you don't agree with me, I encourage you to be more conscious about your decisions concerning what you work on next. In doing so, at least be open to the potential to discover something better to do from someone else than you now imagine is possible.
To reinforce that point, let me share an example concerning one of my former students who is now a faculty colleague at Rushmore University, Professor Tom Karp, Ph.D. He's also an associate professor of management and leadership at the Oslo School of Management in Norway.
His research and teaching have recently emphasized the role of willpower in order to improve leadership results. With such a focus he naturally believes that choosing the right tasks is quite important... rather than just drifting with the organizational tide.
When I asked Professor Karp what his most important research project has been, he answered that it's almost always the one he's working on at the time. That answer didn't surprise me. Someone who is very intentional about choosing the right tasks to work on should always be working on the most significant task imaginable.
Having such intentionality in the forefront of his mind doesn't mean that he hasn't branched out. In addition to teaching on the premises at the Oslo School, he teaches online for Rushmore, too. He also founded and developed a joint venture school for the Oslo School of Management and the Danish KaosPilots. In addition, he's a visiting professor at a couple of other institutions.
Professor Karp has also been an innovator in developing courses in leadership, management, and entrepreneurship at the bachelor's and master's levels. While doing the course development, he also headed a number of research projects.
Writing is another important part of his work. Since earning his Ph.D., he has written one book, has contributed articles to three others, and he is presently working on his second book. He has published another twenty articles in international academic journals and has two more articles in the publication pipeline.
He's not just an academic. He is a leadership developer and coach, and professor Karp recently joined with some partners to launch a new talent-development venture.
As you can imagine, I was wondering what he was planning to work on next. Here's what he responded:
"I'm just now wondering about it."
What a marvelous answer!
Professor Karp says he is driven by curiosity. His activities continually push him into areas where he can test his current knowledge, add new experiences, and gain valuable perspectives from others. You should do the same when you choose what you will work on.
Donald W. Mitchell is a professor at Rushmore University who often teaches people who want to improve their business effectiveness in order to accomplish career breakthroughs through earning advanced degrees. For more information about ways to engage in fruitful lifelong learning at Rushmore University to increase your effectiveness, I invite you to visit