Habits are great when then support getting routine chores that don’t require much thought done, but when they start to feel like a jail for your spirit, it’s time to challenge yourself. My friend and social media wizard Ernest has been doing just that for himself that last few years. Well, actually, he does it all the time.
Truths About Leadership Nobody Wants to Hear Part 3
“As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.” Andrew Carnegie
In the course of my work I often get to ask people what their “priorities” are. There are two problems with this. The word “priority”, much like “integrity” or “quality” has so many meanings to so many different people that it’s meaningless.
Second, as “Think Like A Freak” points out, simply asking people what’s important to them doesn’t necessarily work. Not that people are being deliberately deceptive. They’ll just often give you the answer they think you want, and then go do what they really want to.
So I’ve started asking my clients to start tracking how they spend their time. There are a couple of ways to do this: Set a time for a regular interval and write down what you’re doing when it goes off. Set an alarm a given number of times at random intervals during the day and write down what you’re doing when it goes off. Or just be really disciplined about writing down how you spend every moment.
It’s a bit of a pain, but it’s a very interesting exercise in self-awareness if you’ve never done it before. You can do it for yourself is you like. At the end of a week look for the patterns and figure out what they tell you, if anything. FYI the random interval timer gives the best data sampling.
What’s the point? Show me documented evidence of how you spend your time, and I’ll tell you what your priorities really are.
Our Blind Spots
This exercise is not about judging and shaming. If you want to spend ten hours a day cruising the internet for cat videos then fill your proverbial puss-in-boots. But if you tell others (or more importantly yourself) that “family”, “career”, etc. are the most important things in your life, and you spend 10 hours a day cruising the internet for cat videos, then you might have some decisions to make.
We all have blind spots when it comes to ourselves. Most of us think we’re the only ones that don’t, because, well, it’s our blind spot. We watch what others do, not just what they say, but we all don’t watch ourselves.
People are watching you. Not just listening to the words that come out of your mouth. How you say things, your facial expressions, your eye contact, your body language. They watch your work – the quantity, quality, and timeliness of your work. Who you spend time with, what you spend time on, and the decisions you make when deadlines loom and budgets escape their cages. How you treat customers, which suppliers you use, and who you hire and fire.
Especially who you hire or fire – how fast you do it, for what reasons (stated and implied), who gets promoted, who gets training, who gets chosen for special projects, who gets assigned to what work, and so on.
You say more with these actions than you ever will with a poster of company values in the lunchroom. And if your actions and the poster are inconsistent with each other, guess which one they’ll believe?
The Hard Work
Deciding what not to do. It’s really really hard. So hard that many people go look at cat videos instead. But it’s liberating.
Take a look at your to-do list now. What’s been hanging around the longest without being done? If it’s still really important then do it. Actually spend time moving it forward. If not, cross it off your list and don’t look back. You’re free now – you have more time to do what’ really important.
Drucker said there were two kinds of compromise. The first is the “Would you rather have half a loaf of bread or no bread?” Which doesn’t sound so bad if the alternative is no bread.
The second kind was “Would you rather have half a baby?”, which doesn’t sound so appealing at all.
Trying to compromise on your work life is not a “half a loaf” compromise. You cannot cut yourself in half, and even if you could, there is no way you could ever do it fairly and consistently over time.
When people ask me about achieving work/life balance, and we dig a little deeper (with some active listening and asking questions), what we usually figure out is that there’s a decision that they need to make that they’re avoiding. They say, for example, that their family is more important than work (and really, who would say otherwise?), but looking at their calendar and how they spend their time proves this is a lie.
So try big rocks first instead. Figure out what is (or what you think is) your highest priority, and schedule that first. Because how you spend your time really shows your priorities.
This means you have to make choices. Sometimes they are hard choices. Sometimes you can’t have it all, or the people you were counting on are letting you down, or something you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into turns out to be a dead end.
You’ll find balance when you are happy with your choices, even if there are some painful changes along the way.
…and if don’t want to make those decisions or changes, that’s a choice too.
I believe that there are two responsibilities a CEO cannot give away or delegate: deciding who works for them, and the strategy / vision / direction of the company. Which is interesting, because I make my living helping companies build and execute strategic priorities.
Really, if I think about it, my role is to create the habit of strategic thinking and execution inside their companies. Not just an event that happens once a year. I consider myself successful when I’ve worked myself out of a job. My clients “graduate” when they exercise disciplined strategic review and energetic execution for themselves.
How do I know when their ready? First, they have priorities. Second, the way they spend all their individual and company resources (time, money, materials, people) lines up with what they say their priorities are. Third, they are successful doing so (for whatever their definition of success is), and can vigorously confront or adjust for any obstacles to that execution.
If you need a little more strategic thinking in your organization / team / company / life, this article talks about the role of the strategist / strategy in a company:
I’m an advocate for preparation. Preparing for the day, the next meeting, a job interview (candidate or interviewer), etc. I’m not always as good as taking the time to prepare for things as I like, but I’ve never lost a country because of it:
So, if you’re running from meeting to meeting without any time to do your “real work”, let alone being ready for the meeting and knowing what you want to get out of it before you get there; if you spend your days responding to emails and crises and go home at night wondering where your day went; if you habitually work long hours, evenings and weekends, trying to catch up; perhaps you need to slow down and think about how to get back control of your day.
Before you give away the store (or the company, or your country).
Seventh and last in a series about communication and change management.
I’ve got a lot of renovation projects started around my house. We installed hardware floors eight years ago, and still haven’t put the baseboards in. I know it was eight years because the night we put the last nail in is the night my god-daughter was born. In fact, we baby-sat her older sister while Mom & Dad (who’d been helping us) went to the hospital to deliver their latest.
The outside of the house is half painted, the garage needs new gutters, and I have the bricks but not the sand to re-lay the back patio so that it slope away from the house instead of towards it. I started that job when I took the old wooden patio out. I don’t remember how many years ago that was.
There’s lots of things we could be doing, and yet nothing seems to get done. We’ve gone from doing a little here (let’s get an estimate on finishing the tiling on the back landing) to doing a little there (oops, the playhouse needs repair! Let’s turn it into a garden shed while we’re at it – the kids are all grown up and don’t need it anymore.)
It’s demoralizing really. Lots of activity, no sense of progress. Companies and teams can suffer from the same organizational schizophrenia. When everything is important, then nothing is important, and nobody is clear about what to do next.
Fix #7 Focus
There’s a saying about how the cobbler’s children go barefoot because he’s too busy making shoes for everybody else. So I took my own advice. I stepped back to figure out what I was trying to accomplish over all. Then I picked one thing to do to get me closer to that.
Sooner or later we’re going to need to sell the house we’re in. The kids will all be moved out soon. The house is too big for just the two of us. Maybe we’ll find a little place out in the country. Or the mountains. Or maybe next to a slow-moving river in a little valley out on the prairie.
Regardless, we’re going to need to get our investment plus maybe a little extra out of it. We were never going to get there if we kept doing the same thing we are now, which is trying to come up with the perfect plan and budget.
Pick One Thing
We picked one project and we’re focused on that. We’re installing the baseboards, re-painting the wall, and moving around some furniture and pictures. Then we can get our offices set up, and get some extra closet space to make the kitchen more livable. But the baseboards are going in. We’ve spent the last two weekends working, and the progress is tangible. At the end of today the pronouncement was “Let’s keep going!
It is so easy to plan everything out to the Nth degree, and let slip the time we could actually be doing things. Time is the one thing we cannot run down to the hardware store and get more of.
Decisions are Expensive
Making decisions is expensive. Holding two competing ideas, alternatives, or options in your brain at the same time, and choosing between them, costs the brain a lot of energy. Our ability to make quality decisions degrades with each subsequent decision during the day. Save your decision making energy for when you really need it. Once you’ve made a decision, act on it!
“Do Not Do” List
Leader’s make decisions. Those decision include what not to do. And that has to be communicated as explicitly as what you are going to do. What if you made a “Not” list? List all the things that you’re not going to do? If need be, you can even make a “Later” list, as in “This might be next, but I’m not going to spend time and energy thinking about it now.”
Start With the End in Mind
Have a vision for where your company / team / organization is going. Then pick something, usually the most urgent “do now” stuff, and get it done. Something that if you focused on it for a set time would give you the best chance of getting closer to your goal. Give yourself a deadline. Remove all other distractions. Then do it until it’s done. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Focus precedes success, which generates momentum, energy, enthusiasm, and that elusive “employee engagement”.
Steven Covey is famous for his “big rocks” analogy, described in his even more famous “Seven Habits” book. And a big part of my work is to get companies to work on their big rocks first as a company. When it fails, it usually fails for one of two reasons:
It’s Not Really Big
Self-deception is at work here. They know they should be working on “it”, whether “it” is a marketing plan or cost controls or whatever the immediate crisis or current business trend is. That’s call an aspirational goal.
Or they don’t have the courage to face the fundamental issues in and among the executive team itself. Maybe not all of them belong on that particular bus. Maybe not all understand or agree where the company needs to go next. Maybe they’re not very good open and honest communication. So they come up with a result, or a fuzzy ill-defined outcome instead of a clear, simple, concise action that everybody understand and knows what they need to do.
Let me say that again: clear, simple, concise action.
A variation of this is what I call a “pounding the desk” goal. For example “We need to increase profit to 15%” (and I’m going to yell and pound the desk until somebody makes it happen.) Who is going to make it happen? What exactly are they going to make happened? Are you going to cut inventory costs by 10%. Or reduce supplier costs? Or increase sales? How are you going to increase sales? What do you need to do
Clear, simple concise.
What are the concrete physical actions that you are going to take?
Lack of Individual Effectiveness
Everybody’s busy. The most effective people are busy on the things they want to be busy on. They have control of their own calendars. There carve out uninterrupted blocks of time planner, journal, or calendar to do that things they need to do. Free from interruption. On purpose. They work on the most important things first by putting them in the jar first. Then they stick to it. Sometimes by hiding in the coffee shop down the street, or in an empty office where nobody can find them . . .
. . . and not surprisingly, they get the most important things done. They may not be the busiest people in your organization, or even get the most done, but they get the most important things done. The stuff that really counts.
Is it simple? Yes. Is it easy? Actually, yes. Once you get past the rush and panic of all the things that are going wrong and only you can fix (makes you feel important, doesn’t it?), and have the integrity to do the things you said you were going to do, it is very easy.
Get over yourself, and start working on on the most important things first.