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Overcoming obstacles is all about balance

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Some things naturally complement each other. I don't know why; they just do. Movies and popcorn. Peanut butter and jelly. The Three Stooges. Tuna fish and mayo. The New York Yankees. Okay, so I'm a little biased.

When it comes to your career, work-life balance, that sort of thing, there's a certain combination of activities that also go together. They fit like a jigsaw puzzle. If one piece is missing, the balance is lost and everything goes to hell.

For me, the winning combination has always been work, play, learn, exercise, nourish, chill out. That's my whole life right there. But it's all got to be there or I'm out of balance. Work and play. Exercise and nourish. Learn and chill out. Everything in balance.

It's the same with businesses and organizations:

- You've got to have big picture strategy coupled with effective execution.

- You need to service existing customers, but you also have to get out there and find new ones.

- There's a time for open debate and a time to make decisions and go with them.

- You can focus on doing one thing really well, but you also need a diversification strategy.

- For leaders, there's a time to share your vision and a time to listen and learn what's really going on.

I can go on and on about this but, frankly, the whole idea of balance can be too amorphous for executives, just as yin-yang might be too Zen for business leaders. So here's the point:

If you get too fanatical about one thing, you can really screw up everything else. Likewise, if you try to do too many things -- to be all things to all people -- you lose focus and the same thing happens. While that may sound entirely obvious, the truth is that many, if not most, executives and leaders fall into that trap sooner or later.

When everything's going fine, it's easy to stay the course. But when things change -- when growth slows, competition heats up or profit margins decline -- that's when companies tend to lose that sense of balance and go too far in one direction or the other.

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Here are a couple of real-world examples of companies that lost their balance. One regained it; the other is still struggling:

Back in 2006, Yahoo senior VP Brad Garlinghouse's wrote the now famous Peanut Butter Manifesto, a scorching indictment of a company lacking cohesive focus and spreading itself too thin across too many opportunities. That email was not only accurate, it was remarkably predictive of what lay ahead for the troubled company.

The problem was this: While CEO Terry Semel helped the company to scale, diversify and become process-oriented, he ultimately went too far. Things got out of hand and the company lost its focus. Four CEOs later, Yahoo still hasn't found itself. That's a testament to how difficult it is to find and maintain the right balance once you've lost it and without the right leadership.

Interestingly, the same sort of thing happened to German software giant SAP. Once upon a time, SAP was about the same size as archrival Oracle. Then SAP lost its way. It had too many irons in too many fires, a growing bureaucracy, and a lack of vision of how to grow the company. In the meantime, Oracle roughly doubled in size and profits by acquiring 65 companies.

The problem was that CEO Leo Apotheker was too internally focused, wasting precious executive time examining corporate values and "being obsessed with [our] own internal nonsense," according to Bill McDermott, who became co-CEO after the board ousted Apotheker. Under new leadership, SAP eliminated bureaucracy, streamlined operations, acquired Sybase and returned to growth and profitability.

Since it's hard to know where you stand when you're in the middle of trying to start, grow or turn around a company, here's my advice on achieving and regaining your balance for each of those stages:

Startup companies and small businesses make it by having a razor-like focus on developing an innovative product or service and bringing it to market. The spotlight is on innovation, development and execution, not on balance.

Once you've achieved that initial traction and it's time to grow the business into a thriving company positioned for long-term success, that's when you need to start thinking about balance. That's when it's time to think about scaling and rounding out the organization, about adding processes and infrastructure to facilitate growth.

Somewhere along the line, competitive pressures, market changes, product transitions, all sorts of possible factors will present obstacles to overcome. That's when even successful executives tend to run into trouble. They start to flounder and flail around. They either go in too many directions at once or become overly obsessed with one thing. That's when they lose their balance. That's the time of greatest risk for any company.

When that happens, you can only regain your balance by realizing you've lost it and recognizing that you need to achieve some perspective and objectivity. You get that by shutting up, asking questions, and listening to what your stakeholders say. Then you stop what you're doing, become silent, and listen to what your inner voice says. If you can do those three things, you've got a chance of regaining your balance and overcoming your obstacles.

Image courtesy of Flickr user stuartpilbrow