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How ‘single-threaded leadership’ will turbo-charge your business growth

You’ve done everything right so far.  Your Executive Team are all A-Players.  Together, you’ve worked on a killer strategy that you know will lead your business towards your BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal).  You’ve prioritised your Objectives and Key Results and all the stars are aligned.  So how do you give your team the best chance of succeeding?  And what are the biggest pitfalls to avoid?

Take a leaf out of Amazon’s book.  They coined the phrase ‘single-threaded leadership’ to explain one reason for their success.  It’s stuck with us because it’s so simple and so obvious.  When something’s a priority, give your best people sole ownership.  Make sure everything else is taken off them so that they can focus on it.  And we mean, EVERYTHING!

Learning from Amazon

Amazon started out as an online book-seller in 1994. Fast-forward twenty years and the company is competing in so many different industries it’s hard to keep track.  Cloud computing, food delivery, streaming, film production… how on earth do they keep their people focused?  And how can they be so agile when they’re so huge?  

    The answer is given in the best-selling book ‘Working Backwards: Insights, Stories and Secrets from inside Amazon’. The company tries to create separate, ‘single-threaded’ teams with a leader who is solely focused on one product or service.  So, when these leaders get out of bed every morning, the only thing they need to think about is how to make their product or service better. This is all about minimising distraction.

    When Amazon has a new idea, the company writes a fake press release and FAQ page to help imagine how the idea will look on launch day.  Then they recruit one leader to the idea and that person builds their team accordingly.

    Enabling innovation

    When I think back to my time as MD of Rackspace, our success was completely dependent on single-minded focus.  When I arrived, we were the largest hoster of Linux in the world – in fact, 75% of all global RedHat hosted deployments were with Rackspace.  In those days, we thought of ourselves as an open-source engineering business, primarily because our founders had been engineers themselves. 

    As time passed, we realised that our business was limited by this emphasis on Linux. Our future growth needed to come from supporting larger companies running Microsoft technology stacks.  Rather than trying to morph Rackspace, we took 100 people and separated them completely from our core.  They were told they didn’t have to follow the ‘Rackspace way’ but were free to create the best hosted Microsoft offering on the market. 

    And that’s what they did.  New tooling, a new stack and a new product service launch.  It traded as a separate entity in its own right, with a separate brand name and website.  If you type in it will take you to Rackspace.  Six months in, we put the businesses back together again.  By the time I left, more than 60% of our revenue came from Windows and we grew to become much more upmarket than we’d been before. 

    There’s no doubt in my mind that this succeeded because we didn’t add this on to people’s already manic jobs.  By setting up a completely new arm of the business,  the only job the team had to do was focus on success.  So they didn’t give up when things got difficult.  They didn’t have to persuade anyone about anything.  They made quick decisions and moved fast.

    Avoiding inertia

    Too often, there’s a mindset in even the best teams that when things get difficult, they give up.  This is usually because they simply have too much on their plates.  When something crops up that’s particularly difficult, people think, ‘Oh my God – if I change that, just think how much extra effort is going to be needed.  Is this really worth it?  I’m already flat out as it is’.  Recognise these feelings of inertia?  They’re so common. 

    We see it in the organisations we’re coaching and in businesses that are struggling to grow or hire good people.  Their focus is too scattered.  Take the role of account management as a great example.  In many businesses, this involves selling to existing customers as well as new ones.  And this means that sales organisations underperform on the new business side because it’s harder to sell to new customers.  If you want difficult things done well, they can’t be part-time.  They require complete focus.   

    Putting weight behind your OKRs

    By adopting single-threaded leadership, you’ll be putting weight behind your OKRs.  You know you need to change something in your business and you’ve worked out that it’s your most important priority.  Then put the resource behind it.  Don’t expect people to take it on in addition to everything else they do. 

    Our client, Clearvision tried to innovate in the past but kept hitting brick walls.  Now, the CEO Gerry Tombs has built a separate organisation to drive innovation that he heads up. A year ago, it started with five bets.  They all had the potential to succeed.  Each one received dedicated sales, technical and product management resources. Now, a year later, there’s one business that’s ready to launch on the back of those five possibilities.  

    Developing your better talent

    Every manager’s job should be to make themselves redundant.  It’s funny – when we say this to people, they often look nervous. ‘I’m going to lose my job,’ they think. Far from it.  What they’re missing is that in any business that’s growing, there’s always new stuff to do.  If they’re an A-player, they need to be ready for the next challenge.  Which means getting their team to a stage where it can run without them. This is the subject of my conversation with Ari Meisel on the Melting Pot.

    Then your good people will be freed up to dedicate themselves to a new project or OKR.  This is how you develop your people and retain your star players.  We know that A-Players are motivated less by money and more by ‘autonomy and mastery’ (thanks to Dan Pink for this insight).  They want influence and respect.  Single-threaded leadership will give this to them. 

    Taking a long, hard look at your people

    You may be reading this and thinking, ‘We’re a smaller company than Amazon.  We don’t have the same resources.  It wouldn’t be possible to dedicate people to a single OKR’.  Then I say to you, ‘Have you done a talent assessment?  Have you sat down and worked out the proportion of A, B and C-Players in your business?’  It’s my bet that at least 25% of your people are C-Players.  You need to get rid of these people because they’re draining your resources.  Replace them with A-Players and you will get 10x productivity from each of them.  All of a sudden, you’ll have surplus time and effort available and you can start to be more agile.

    Yes, recruitment is tough at the moment.  But clients who have spent time on building a strong employer brand are still able to fill roles with good people.  They may be having to pay more but if your customers are loyal and your business is well-run, you can put up your prices.  This is all about recognising the difference single-threaded leadership can make and putting some weight behind it. 

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    Too often, when initiatives fail, it’s because you gave it to a team and it was the third priority on their list of five other crushingly urgent tasks.  And they didn’t do it because it was hard. 

    Setting teams up for success

    Maybe you’re launching into a new vertical.  You’re not developing the technology yet, but need some case studies and customer comments to lead to future sales.  Or you may have noticed that customer churn is too high.  So you need to quickly work out what drives customer retention and come up with some things to fix it.  All these things need single-threaded leadership. You can use it to create new lines of business or revenue streams, looking at the penetration of a new market that has different needs.  It works particularly well for Mergers & Acquisitions, which can be very distracting unless you have dedicated people.    

    Decide which teams are going to take on these tasks and free them up completely from their day jobs.  This means acting as if they’ve left; diverting their phone and emails and ensuring other teams take up their slack. You want them to be completely unencumbered so that they’re 100% focused on this one thing they need to do. 65% of product launches end in failure.  Why?  Because people are busy and often do the easy things first, leaving the hard stuff to later.  It’s human nature.  Often, products will be designed and launched without working out whether the customer wants to buy them at the chosen price.  Just crazy!  You see it all the time. 

    When our clients are using their OKRs properly, they naturally move into single-threaded leadership.  They discuss an initiative and then look at workload across the whole executive team.  Where colleagues have accountability for a specific OKR, they jointly decide to take the workload from this person so that they can give 100% focus to the task.  They also take all of their direct reports off them to give them the time and space to be successful. 

    Our outsourcing client, Smartsourcing, used it to speed up their time to put billable heads into roles.  Because of demand, this time had started to get as long as 21 days.  It was a top priority to improve this so the dedicated team worked hard to understand all the things that were affecting this metric.  Was there software or automation they could use to speed things up?  What was the journey and how long did everything take?  Where did things get stuck?  With a real depth of analysis and single-minded focus, they reduced the target number of days to 14 in the first quarter and then 5 in the next.  A good result!

    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here

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