Oswald Letter

Don’t mistake activity for achievement

Early in my career, I worked for a boss who, every time he returned from vacation, measured the productivity of his staff by the number of reports and memos he had waiting from each person. It didn’t take long for his staff to realize if you wanted to impress upon him that you had worked hard in his absence all you had to do was fill his inbox with reams of paper.

My boss, like a professor who grades term papers by their weight, mistook activity for achievement. What’s worse, his actions encouraged his people to spend time on the useless exercise of papering his inbox. It became a game people played to pacify a misguided manager.

As a leader, it’s a terrible mistake to confuse activity with achievement. Achievement means accomplishing something while activity merely means you’ve done something. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big advocate of action. I’ve argued that when a person is in doubt they should just do something! Something is better than nothing, but it’s not enough. In the end, we’re all measured by our achievement not our action.

Have you ever had an employee who was diligent and well intentioned? He may have shown up early every day and stayed late. He cared about his job, but for whatever reason, the results just weren’t there. When you measured his activity, he was at the top of the heap. But when you looked to see what he had achieved, he was always lacking.

My guess is someone who has worked for you at one time or another just popped into your head as you read that description. And as a manager, those are tough situations to deal with. Your heart says that no one is working harder, but your head tells you they’re not getting the job done. You must focus on the results, which means that employee must be dealt with.

In the end, what matters for each of us are the results we produce. We can point to hard work and good intentions, but what we are able to accomplish is what really counts. And in a society focused on the here and now, most times people are not willing to wait for the results.

Your management role means you must focus on the results. You cannot let yourself get caught up in activity. You must continually measure the outcomes — not what is being done, but what is being achieved by you and your team. Peter Drucker once said, “Leadership is defined by results not attributes.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how you look or sound, you’re only a leader if you produce results. It’s something none of us should ever lose sight of.

Your measurement tools become your report card that tells you exactly how you’re doing. Don’t fall into the trap of changing the scorecard to make the results look more favorable or making excuses for poor performance. To face the hard, cold facts takes discipline, but the alternative is self-delusion and that isn’t going to help you make the changes necessary to produce the required results. Facing the reality of the situation is what allows you to make the decisions that produce results.

So today, think about what you and your team have achieved, not the activities you’ve undertaken. Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of congratulating yourself and others for taking action, but instead celebrate the results. In the end, they are what really counts.