What is the one skill that differentiates great business leaders from good ones? I'd say it is the ability to prioritize successfully. This is such an incredibly hard skill to gain and almost impossible to hire for. Successful prioritization requires two core abilities in business:
- To say "yes" to the opportunities that are most impactful.
- To say "no" frequently, because almost all businesses have far more opportunities than they can possibly take advantage of.
It is this skill that as a CEO and sales leader I focus on getting good at more than any other. I am still far worse at it than I aspire to be. However, I am very lucky to have gotten an early start when it comes to recognizing the value of seizing opportunity.
When I was 19 years old, I chose to delay college for a year and traveled to India to work for the Dalai Lama as a teacher in a school he ran for displaced Tibetan children.
At the time, I said I was going to India "to find myself," but more accurately I was trying to find more direction in my life. I had worked hard in high school, had great grades, and had been admitted to a fantastic college, but I was stumbling about what I really wanted to be as a person and what my purpose was. Although I didn't fully realize it at the time, my privileged position meant that I had an overabundance of opportunity, and this abundance left me feeling a little directionless--by its very definition "a first-world problem," but one I wanted to get straight.
In India, I found a world where there was an acute deficit of opportunity. The community I lived in was achingly poor. In my village, many people, including myself, had no running water, electricity, or proper sanitation in their homes.
Nevertheless, every day I saw these people who had very little make something powerful and meaningful from the little they had. Even when opportunity was lacking, all worked hard to make life better for themselves and their community. They were all positive and ambitious to help one another. Their drive to innovate did not fade simply because they were not offered the same opportunities I had been given.
There was a local entrepreneur who sold half his land to buy a small satellite dish and then ran cable to every "wealthy" family in the village, thus becoming the cable TV provider for the village. Then there were the monks whom I came to know well. The monks lived in four monasteries in my village and found meaning and purpose with no opportunity other than the ability to help others.
Witnessing this was very powerful for me. I came to realize that what was important was to focus on making more out of less opportunity. I needed to prioritize a few opportunities and make each of them successful. That process led me to a different college and a different degree specialization than I had planned on. I made good choices, stuck with them, and found success and gratification.
Ever since then, I have continued to work on building the skill of rigorous prioritization both for my team and myself. I get better every day, but know that it is a skill that I will always be working to improve. I still say "yes" too often and say "no" sometimes to the wrong things; however, at least I know that I am very lucky to live in a country and work in a company where my opportunities are almost endless. Prioritization is the ultimate privilege, and I use it thankfully.