Organizational headaches are realities all great leaders face. Fighting your organization is like trying to fix the IRS by not paying your taxes. You’ll sooner be in hot water for your actions than make any change. Success requires prioritization and execution but the realities you work in make it difficult to do either. By default, these realities will render you ineffective and obsolete. You must evaluate the situation and design an approach for success.
Although very few see this, if you work in an organization you are running a business. If your position requires contribution that materially affects others, you run a business. A business is responsible for creating value for customers in exchange for value from that customer. Regardless of your role, you must focus on delivering value within the context of your situation. In order to deliver that value, you must evaluate the realities you work in and then devise a plan.
So what are the realities all great leaders face?
Your time, appears to be, not your own
Email and meetings drive the day. I’ve found my routine is to sit down at my desk, and open up Outlook. While sipping coffee, I take a look at the calendar and what is in my inbox. Assuming I don’t have an 8am meeting, I start reading and answering emails until my first meeting. Then I sit through the meeting, take some notes, organize whatever actions I have to do, and go back to my desk. At this point, I probably check email for anything hot that came in before I work off my to do list.
That story is a tragedy. No wonder we think that work sucks. Everyone has the authority to move in on your time, and they do. Your calendar is full of other peoples initiatives and your inbox full of other people’s problems. Sure you schedule your own meetings and send your own emails, but how effective are you?
No one ever said it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved – the missteps we make along the way- are what makes it interesting. The internal, and eternal struggle between our base impulses and the rigorous demand of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.Neal Stephenson, Diamond Age
Your response to this struggle will define your work.
Your time is not your own, unless you design it to be
Let’s focus on meetings. Meetings are not merely a space on your calendar. Meetings should have purpose because they spend your most valuable non renewable resource. In order to make a shift, you need to start defining your meetings and setting boundaries on what you will and will not attend. This will seem scary, and it is. Pushing back on the organizer to define their purpose and intent gives the impression of confrontation but it will be respected. Remember that you are running a business and your time is valuable. Make sure that the time has a purpose defined and that the purpose aligns with your mission. If it doesn’t simply decline or reach out to the host and ask for clarification on what is unclear. You’ll be surprised how many meetings fall off your calendar or, better yet, become an efficient use of time.
To follow up meetings, make sure you:
- Summarize discussion and conclusion
- Spell out work assignments (including another meeting)
- Specified the deadline and accountable party
- Send to all attendees
Email is a indirect form of communication. It’s not meant to be a streaming text conversation. Even though it feels like it, nobody expects you to respond immediately to emails. When a little time elapses, most problems find a way to solve themselves. Here is a sample approach shared by Tim Ferris.
In an effort to increase productivity and efficiency I am beginning a new personal email policy. I’ve recently realized I spend more time shuffling through my inbox and less time focused on the task at hand. It has become an unnecessary distraction that ultimately creates longer lead times on my ever-growing ‘to do’ list.
Going forward I will only be checking/responding to email at 11a and 4p on weekdays. I will try and respond to email in a timely manner without neglecting the needs of our clients and brand identity.
If you need an immediate time-sensitive response… please don’t hesitate to call me. Phones are more fun anyways.
Hopefully this new approach to email management will result in shorter lead times with more focused & creative work on my part. Cheers & here’s to life outside of my inbox!Tim Duke via Tim Ferris
I took a more indirect approach but have implemented the same thing. I’m not saying that there are some days where things get crazy and I add a batch or two, but that’s the exception and not the rule.
Finally, the focus needs to be on action. Here are the 5 actions that will add value to your goals.
The 5 Actions
If you do these well, you will focus on what drives the business forward. Remember that your success is determined by your outcomes. You get no points for email responsiveness, percent of day in meetings, or volume of instant messages answered. Those are actions you should take only when they are high leverage points to help you meet your goals. When they are not high leverage, they are a waste of time. Pruning your time is like tending a garden for weeds, you are always behind. It’s a constant search for a mystical day where you are able to only focus on what is important to you. That day will never come. You cannot depend on the utility of your actions alone unless others in the organization are aligned.
All action is meaningless unless utilized by others
Usually the people who are most important to the effectiveness of an executive are not people over whom he has direct control. They are people in other areas, people who in terms of organization, are “sideways.” Or they are his superiors. Unless the executive can reach these people, can make his contributions effective for them and their work, he has no effectiveness at all.Peter Drucker
The people you work with must be able to use your work output or you are useless. It’s not like you are making something practical, like a sweater or a garden hose. If you were able to make a physical good, you could produce that good in isolation and your contribution would be successful. Unfortunately, we do not make physical goods. We create ideas and thoughts. Those ideas and thoughts are worthless in isolation. Only when others can take your work and apply their creativity, ideas, and thoughts do we start to produce real value.
A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.Robert Cialdini
When I was a kid, my mom could use 4 words to make me rebel against anything, “Because I said so!” Regardless of your title, keeping why out of your request will render you ineffective. I’ve created a habit of identifying a ‘why’ with every ask. When the information of why is completely useless to the person, I still explain it. It’s a habit you’ll want to get in if you desire to have any kind of influence. Influence is required to make your life easier. Setting others up believing that what they are doing is meaningful helps them develop ownership. Ownership reduces babysitting. Babysitting is not a good use of your time.
Working with people is messy and complex. The fantasy to cut through the noise and figure out a way around them all is tempting. There is one more reality that prohibits that temptation from being valuable.
You are stuck inside an organization
Let’s run through an exercise. You see all the issues and errors at your company. Fed up, you decide that you could do it better on your own or at another company. You leave and start fresh. What have you accomplished? Removing yourself from the burden of an organization, you find yourself in another organization. It may look different and it might seem like you have more control, but you’ll soon fine the grass is not greener. You’ll trade formal committees for different decision centers and inefficient co-workers with inconsistent vendors. If you want to do anything significant, you must understand how to control the organization you are in, and utilize it to achieve your goals.
Just because you are in an organization, does not mean you must be ruled by it. By identifying the design to find success, you’ll become efficient in taming the savage beast. Give those you work with a voice, but not a vote. Consensus would be great but it’s too slow and often impossible. You can work within an organization without it ruling your every step. How you spend your time is much more important than the amount of time you spend. The keys to success start with how you design your day and how you influence the organization. You are not of product of your circumstances, you are a product of your decisions.