How the best bosses find focus

March 24, 2009, 9:55 PM UTC

“The hardest thing about the job is staying focused,” President Obama told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes Sunday night.

Are you feeling like the President these days? Unfocused? Maybe fatally so? We’re living in an age of “global A.D.D.,” as David Brooks, the New York Times op-ed writer said in his column last Friday. Brooks criticizes President Obama for attempting to tackle the “four most complicated problems facing the nation–health care, energy, immigration and education”–at the same time he’s trying to save America from economic meltdown. “Why he has not also decided to spend his evenings mastering quantum mechanics and discovering the origins of consciousness is beyond me,” Brooks writes.

If you find yourself fuzzy in your focus (as I am!), here are a few tips that I’ve collected and could help us cope:

1. Know what you’re not good at. Over lunch last week, a senior executive at a top Fortune 500 company told me that when she’s interviewing candidates for jobs (yes, she’s actually hiring!), she notes whether the prospect knows what his or her talent is not. “Most people don’t know what they’re not good at,” she said. She generally turns away these folks and chooses the self-aware ones who know how to channel their energy.

2. Know what not to do. Anne Mulcahy, who brought Xerox back from the brink and ranks No. 4 on Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women list, told the New York Times on Sunday: “It’s sometimes hard to make choices about where you invest; it’s equally hard to make choices about where you don’t invest and what you eliminate.”

Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, now running for governor of California and the subject of Fortune‘s current cover story, agrees. Having started her career studying strategy and marketing at Bain, Procter & Gamble and Disney , she says she learned the importance of knowing what not to do. At eBay, her “not-do” common sense made her the most financially disciplined CEO throughout the dot-com boom. For instance, she refused to spend money on TV advertising or acquisitions when even her own board members told her she wasn’t being aggressive enough. Whitman eventually spent big—on PayPal (wisely) and Skype (overpaid). But she kept eBay on a steady course for a long while.

3. Find a focus and stick with it. No CEO is better at identifying, communicating, and sticking to a vision than A.G. Lafley, the CEO of Procter & Gamble. Besides his mantra, “the consumer is boss,” Lafley’s big idea is: Reach outside for ideas. “Inward focus is the enemy of growth,” says Lafley in this article that he wrote for the May Harvard Business Review. Lafley quotes one of his late mentors, management sage Peter Drucker: “The CEO is the link between the Inside that is ‘the organization’ and the Outside of society, economy, technology, markets, and customers. Inside there are only costs. Results are only on the outside.”

Do you realize that Lafley has been beating this drum since he took the helm at P&G nine years ago? I explained how he and P&G “link the outside to the inside,” as he says, in a 1994 Fortune story. You’d better read quickly–and get back to what you’re supposed to be focused on!

P.S. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about how to focus?