Should CEO’s, Business Owners, Founders Focus Inside or Outside?

Founders, CEO’s, and business owners need to be skilled at knowing how to balance many competing ideas, priorities, initiatives, and more.  We explored this idea in the post the Art of Balance that listed 20 continuums that founders, CEO’s, and business owners must balance constantly. How much to focus your attention inside or outside your organization is one of the most important continuums to consider. There is no right answer. The focus should change constantly. Below are several contradictory points of view, any of which could be the most relevant for your organization at any point in time.


Founders focus should shift between internal and external.

  • No one understands the market like the founder or CEO.  Jack Welch used to say that CEO’s should ask themselves what one or two things can they do that no one else in their organizaton can do.  Many times, the founder or CEO understands the marketplace better than anyone and has the best sense of where to go.  Therefore, they should constantly focus on making sure the organization is positioned well in the market.
  • Winning is all about execution.  Ideas are a dime a dozen.  Competitors come and go.  Analysts (particularly on Wall Street) talk about the latest fads that will only last a quarter.  It is all just noise.  Focus internally and execute because more companies fail to succeed because of lack of execution rather than being beaten by the competition.
  • The founder and CEO has the best access to people and information, and the organization needs that.  The CEO calling another CEO is totally different than anyone else calling another CEO.  The organization needs that information and access to players in the market (financing sources, strategic partners, acquisition candidates, etc.) for long-term success.
  • The best strategists focus externally.  The Chair of the Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School and my old professor, Jan Rivkin, says that the best strategists “are relentless in understanding the external world.”
  • Being different is the key to competitive advantage — if you focus externally too much it becomes tempting to pursue strategies done by everyone else.  When you see a competitor doing well, it takes a very strong organization not to copy them.  Sometimes you should copy good ideas.  Sometimes a strategy that works for them is not the best for you.  If you are constantly trying to catch-up to someone else, you will never be the leader.
  • Our market is changing constantly (technology) and we need our best people watching the changes or our market hasn’t changed in 100 years.

There is no one right answer.  It helps, however, for every founder or CEO to make a conscious decision about how they should balance their time and priorities between the interior and exterior of their organization.

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