Performance Improves When Managers Focus on Short-Term Results

The most powerful approach to coaching is one that focuses urgently on day-to-day, high-quality results. As basketball great Michael Jordan said, “I approach everything step by step using short-term goals. When I meet one goal, I set another reasonable goal I can achieve if I work hard. Each success leads to the next one.”


Focusing on short-term goals produces extraordinary short-term performance, and for those who stick with it long enough, it produces long-term transformational growth—one day at a time.


The greatest coach I have ever personally known was Frank Gorman, who, before his passing in 2023, had been my karate teacher since 1974. For the nearly 50 years I knew him, Frank Gorman had been intensely focused on one thing: Karate. He was a master at getting a room full of people to share his focus and work intensely on one short-term goal for hours on end.


How did he do that?


“The only thing that matters is your thumbs,” Frank would say to his students, over and over, for weeks. “Pull in your thumbs, press them hard against your palms, so hard the tendons in your forearms raise up.”


Here would be thirty people in a crowded training hall sweating and straining from physical exhaustion, trying to keep their eyes straight ahead, chins down, shoulders back, backs straight, hips square, feet pressed into the floor. And Frank Gorman would be yelling, somehow in a whisper, “Your thumbs, pull in your thumbs. The only thing that matters is your thumbs.”


Then one day, the only thing that mattered was something else. Your eyes. Your chin. Your shoulders. And on and on, for decades. The amazing thing is that the impact of the mantra never wore off. Somehow, “it” really was all that mattered, whatever “it” happened to be on any given day.


One day I had to ask, “How can anything be the only thing that matters, when that thing always changes?”


Frank told me, “Nobody can learn karate in one day or even one year. But all we have is today. What can I teach you today? What can you achieve today? I don’t think we should waste each other’s time. I really believe it when I say, ‘the only thing that matters is’ whatever it is today. That’s why you believe it. Because it’s true. The only thing that matters is what we are doing here today.”


The lesson: A coach’s primary job is to focus and refocus their team onto specific goals that can be acted on—today. Managing this way takes effort, but the payoff is incredible:

  1. Teams and individuals build a repertoire of abilities, one skill at a time. While small, achievable goals may seem unnecessary to manage, those short-term results add up over the long-term. Keep in mind that the next steps that are obvious to the manager may be overlooked by the team, especially when it comes to ongoing projects or recurring tasks. Managers shouldn’t be afraid to break things down and spell things out from time to time.
  2. Focus becomes a habit. When managers end each team or one-on-one meeting by reiterating the current goal, or next immediate step, it becomes a habit. Employees are much more likely to approach their work with that focus as a guide.
  3. Balancing multiple projects becomes easier. When focused on one detail at a time, teams are less focused on the precariousness of handling so many tasks at once. Managers can mitigate the stress of future unknown variables by emphasizing what individuals can control: Their own immediate concrete actions.


Make better use of your management time

Improving the quality of your leadership, no matter your role, is one of the best career investments you can make:

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