We loved that expression when we first heard it from Jim Barksdale, then the COO of FedEx. That single sentence captures the greatest challenge that executives and managers face today: keeping their people and their organizations centered on what matters most.
Every organization needs a Main Thing—a single, powerful expression of what it hopes to accomplish. Without it, it’s not possible to align the four elements that produce organizational efficiency and effectiveness: strategy, people, customers, and processes.
Does your organization have a Main Thing? Do your people understand it? Are they guided by it?
Fred Smith, the Founder and CEO of FedEx, once described to us his understanding of The Main Thing—which he refers to as the “theory of the business.”
Every successful business has, at its heart, a theory of the business–an underlying set of supporting objectives and a corporate philosophy that gives people a foundation on which to operate. Working inside that framework, they’ve got an idea of what we want them to do—to prioritize. We [at FedEx] have a very clear business mission and a business theory which is understood certainly by every member of the management team, and probably by 90 percent of the work force.”
The Main Thing is critically important. It is the end that strategy and human effort serve. We cannot achieve and maintain alignment without consensus and conviction about The Main Thing. Yet we are always amazed by how few people can articulate their organization’s main thing. When we ask participants in workshops, “What’s your Main Thing?” we see people digging into their wallets for the latest mission statement. Others look questioningly to the person sitting next to them. We wonder how these people can formulate a strategy or know how well they are doing if they cannot even state—or agree on—the ultimate purpose of their work.
Some people, however, can articulate their Main Thing without hesitation. Here are a few examples:
- For people at FedEx, The Main Thing is: “People-Service-Profit.”
- An official in charge of nutrition at the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated her organization’s Main Thing as “Ending hunger in this country.”
- An electrical utility executive explained his company’s purpose crisply and clearly: “To be the power source of choice.”
- The CEO of Connecticut’s Farmington Bank told George that its Main Thing is to “Drive economic development in central Connecticut.”
- The U.S. Navy’s huge Naval Aviation Enterprise, which supplies aircraft and trained crews to the fleet, has boiled its Main Thing down to a simple phase: “Aircraft and crews ready for tasking at lower cost.”
- Boston’s Port Authority, which has responsibility for bridges, airport, and harbor terminals, once described its Main Thing as “Advancing Boston’s pace of economic development.”
Our good friend, Claude Roessiger has long experience with luxury brand management. He likens our concept of The Main Thing to a strong brand. “A brand, he explained, “produces an emotional response and at the same time communicates to all how to behave.” Your Main Thing should do the same.
What is The Main Thing for your organization? Can you articulate it clearly and concisely? Can your subordinates? In many organizations, people have no clear answer, or will offer a confusing list of lofty goals. Others will describe their strategy. But a strategy is not The Main Thing; it is merely its servant. In some cases senior management defines The Main Thing one way and the people in the trenches define it in another. In these cases people and policies work at cross-purpose; one person is pulling when the other guy is pushing.
As you formulate a Main Thing for your organization, keep these guidelines in mind:
The Main Thing for the organization as a whole must be a common and unifying concept to which every unit can contribute.
Each department and team must be able to see a direct relationship between what it does and this overarching goal.
The Main Thing should be clear, easy to understand, and consistent with the strategy of the business.
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-By George Labovitz and Victor Rosansky