Best Advice: Feed the Eagles and Starve the Turkeys

When any of us is in a stretch role – a new job, facing a learning curve, and not knowing how we will handle the challenge– it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

When I was 20-something, I was running a channel program at Apple Computer, one that was directly responsible for growing revenues of a the web server product line (it ultimately grew from $2M product line to $180 Million in 18 months). For the first time in my life, the job had big expectations, which I felt rather unqualified to do, and, to top it off, people reporting to me.

After trying to power through on my own for a while, I walked into my boss’s office, the division leader. I told him that I felt like on any given day I was facing a tsunami of things I could pay attention to, and there was no way I could work any harder to make stuff happen. I was asking for more resources, as the answer. And he sat me down as he might one of his many kids and gave me this advice: Feed the Eagles and Starve the Turkeys.

At first, I thought he was making a judgment about people – meaning some people are turkeys and some are eagles – so focus on the ones who will soar. That’s probably how I first started applying his advice. But I think the advice was more profound than that. It took me years to understand what he really meant.

Feed the Eagles. There are only a few things that matter. Know what they are. And place your energy into them. They aren’t always right in front of you so you need to look up and out more. Starve the Turkeys – lots of things are right in front of you … pecking around, making noise, and demanding attention. Because they are right in front of you, it’s easy to pay attention to them most and first. Ignore them. They will actually do fine without you.

And it’s worked so well for me that now I don’t just apply it to business, but to other aspects of my life as well.

Email is one great example. Like many people, I could base my workday around the never-ending flow of incoming email. But most of those emails are just pecking around, demanding attention. Instead, I have a list of projects, priorities, and companies I’m already committed to. For example, the Corporate Boards I serve on get first dibs every day. Big projects like books or magazine articles I am developing go next. Relationships are next; people I already know or firsthand introductions. Everything else largely goes unread, and filed without attention. I buy into this email charter. Even after years, I sometimes fret about what I might have missed or who I might have offended, but it’s really the only workable option. Otherwise, I would never be able to feed my “eagles” what they need.

And there’s the big picture. After many years of not putting my family first, I changed my priorities. We have come to an agreement about what life needs to look like for the whole family to thrive. Since they are truly the Eagles of my life – I focus on being with them and making sure to be there when it matters. My schedule is set by the nights we eat dinner together, the way we spend time together as a family on weekends. There will come a time in a few years where this might be more flexible, but – for now – this is key. But it comes at a great professional cost – there are many gatherings and events that I get invited, and the vast majority must be declined. I know that in doing so I miss opportunities to build relationships, or learn something new, but I can’t choose these many potential things without sacrificing and feeding an Eagle to which I’m already committed.

Feed the Eagles, Starve the Turkeys. This advice isn’t easy. It’s hard to say no, or to deny attention to people wanting attention from you. But I’ve learned the lesson and keep relearning it as things change. In order to thrive, you have to make choices. You must know what matters, and then choose to feed those things to see progress. And of course, make peace with yourself that you’ll never do everything or even everything right. Doing a little bit of everything just leaves you spread too thin. The advice applies to each of individual lives, and it of course applies to every organization trying to figure out their strategy. You must choose the things that matter, and feed them fully, to make them soar.

Nilofer Merchant