There are two kinds of work a leader needs to do each day. How much time one spends on each type of work provides some indication as to how successful they are likely to be over time. The first type of work includes everything that shows up on the leader’s desk today, whether it requires their attention or not. Call this kind of work urgencies and emergencies.
The second type of work is the projects, initiatives, and decisions necessary to move the organization forward, inching closer to the better future state the leader is responsible for creating. This work is not urgent, with the only deadline being the leader’s commitment to a date of their choosing.
The more you give your time to the first type, the urgent, the less time you’ll have for the more important work, work that requires your attention and your energy.
Small Things, Small Outcomes
There is a lot of confusion about an “open door” policy. Many people believe you leave your door open, allowing people to walk in with their agenda or their problem or their question at a time that suits them. What it means is that they are free to come to you for help, but not without you agreeing to a time. When you invite small things with minimal outcomes, those little things will prevent you from spending time on what’s most important.
A typical day might start with a conversation about a client who is unhappy because their invoice was incorrect, followed by a question about how to best set up some reporting function in your CRM, followed by a phone call to discuss a prospective client’s complaint about your pricing model. There is nothing on this list that isn’t important. There is also nothing on this list that should command you to stop what you are doing to provide direction.
Call this “the Urgency Trap.” You start with effective leadership vision regarding growth, transformation, and leading those in your charge to the better results they are capable of producing, only to find each day bringing more small things that “require” your attention, even if there is no reason they should command your time, and even if those who bring them to you should be empowered to resolve things themselves.
One of the root causes of the Urgency Trap is a low trust environment, with the leader requiring that all decisions funnel through their desk, something that will ensure they have no time for what’s important. Another cause of the Urgency Trap is something even worse than low trust; it’s a leader without a plan.
Big Things, Big Outcomes
There is nothing easy about being a good leader. You have to see a future that is invisible to others, inviting them to see what you see, and compelling them to help bring it forward in time. You have to help people make the changes required of that new future, providing them with the mindset, skillset, and toolkits, as well as strong leadership. Your priorities must become the whole organization’s priorities, from top to bottom, with everyone doing their part, producing better results.
Your competitor launched a campaign designed to take market share away from you by changing their pricing and service model, something a few of your clients have found compelling enough to cause them to move, displacing you in a couple of critically important accounts. You need to respond, and you need a program to compete effectively.
The new product you launched should be doing better than it is. Part of your future includes a pivot from your old product to the new one, and you are behind on your goals and falling further back. You are uncertain why the results are so poor, but something needs to change.
You have recognized your sales approach is no longer the right way to address your prospective client. It’s outdated, rules-based, and doesn’t position your salespeople as consultative salespeople or peers, making them increasingly irrelevant to your potential clients. You need to decide when and how to give them what they need to succeed.
The reason these things don’t get your attention is that they are hard things to do and difficult decisions to make. They all require you to deal with the unknown, the kind of decisions leaders must make, even when they can’t be sure of the outcome. It’s much easier to answer the question about the client with the incorrect invoice or answer a question about the CRM report, things with a known and specific outcome.
The better future and growth you want requires you to work on the things that deliver those major outcomes. To make time for big things, you have to eliminate the small things that take your time and create the habit of being passive and reactive.
The Wrong Urgencies
The consequences of the small things that find their way to your desk are also minor. The consequences of the big things that you ignore because they don’t appear to be urgent and require hard decisions with uncertain outcomes are enormous, even if they don’t have a built-in deadline.
You have to decide that what’s most important must be treated as if it is urgent, with the smaller things being treated as something less, if still important. The consequences of not spending time on what’s most important are enormous, which means they should take precedence over all the things with outcomes that are not consequential.
Changing your results means refusing to spend time on small things, ensuring your team is aligned with your intentions, and empowering them to make decisions based on what they know you would want from them. It also means teaching those in your charge to keep a list of all the things they need you to help them with for a time when you can meet with them to ensure they are succeeding in your most important outcomes, providing answers to the small things as part of that meeting.
If the work you do is something that someone else should do, leave that work to them. Instead, spend your time and energy on the work that requires your time, your attention, and your decisions.
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