When time is scarce (when is it not these days) and the to-do list is endless, prioritizing important projects, deciding where to spend your time and maintaining energy are critical skills for the overburdened executive. Everyone today in corporate environments will tell you that time is the scarcest resource while work volume is increasing. With shrinking budgets, an over-abundance of information, twenty-four seven access on multiple devices and increasing business complexity, leaders must use their time wisely.
This is true for all executives, and for those new to C-levels roles especially, where a leader spends his or her time are the most essential skill sets to build credibility in the first year and beyond. Seasoned executives could benefit from periodic adjustments to their time, energy and resources without apology as well. A key part of this time adjustment is often managing the expectations of others’ about where you will focus your precious time, resources and energy.
Although coaching goals for executives are targeted at outcomes, such as increasing revenues, maintaining or decreasing costs, envisioning new lines of business, leading organizational change or communicating with key stakeholders effectively, our coaching conversations often include managing oneself effectively, monitoring where time is spent and recasting focus areas to use that time well. Understanding where a leader currently spends his or her time might sound onerous, however, a quick calendar scan over a two to four-week time frame will illustrate well enough the big buckets of work and time allocated to them.
The narrative often goes like this, “I can’t believe I spend most of my time on short- term horizon activities, mostly in meetings, presiding over daily operations and initiatives.” CEO’s should be spending the bulk of their time on mid to long horizon strategies that only he or she can do for the company. Another observation that’s common is the frequency of important impromptu conversations that could potentially wait to be addressed in other venues such as staff meetings, scheduled 1:1 update(s) or handled by others (the direct reports of the CEO). It’s not that open-door policies are bad, in fact, they’re great for preserving or building healthy business cultures, however, executives must maintain a focus on the right work to move the business forward and delegate the rest.
As many of the executives I work with are making the transition to C-level jobs for the first time, letting go of the old functional responsibilities is a difficult habit to break. It’s tempting to keep a hand in old functional activities from one’s previous job, instead of fully handing them to other leaders so they can learn. Holding onto perfection expectations can be one reason for holding on to old work or simply that this work is a comfort zone, where one feels competent.
One new C-level executive, Jane, had grown up in the company before becoming CEO. When we reviewed where she was spending her time, as much as 40% of her time was spent in lower value activities that could be handled by her successor. Many leaders wait too long to hand work to other senior leaders, and instead are in some way micro-managing this work that now belongs to others in the organization. The question becomes, how deep should one go into functional work versus adopting a new role as coach or advisor to up and coming leaders?
Jane was also spending 25% of her time on a significant organization change project by sitting in long weekly change team meetings and attending satellite office meetings where the operational change work was taking place. After evaluating her time, she moved from doer to sponsor in the change work, keeping an appropriate distance while her very capable senior leaders managed the daily tasks. When she became more of the thinking partner to them, she bought herself significant amounts of time to focus on important external community and legislative outreach.
She made significant changes in her mindset about the value of her contributions across the company and began to control her work, instead of it controlling her. As a result of her new focus on high priority work, Jane found she had more energy to give to her daily responsibilities. She started to feel energized instead of exhausted. For example, she changed how she utilized transition times before and after work and between meetings or conversations.
Jane used to catch up on emails while riding to work on the ferry. Instead of feeling behind on daily communications, she spent her ride time thinking about longer term opportunities for the company. As a result, she would arrive at work feeling more energized and proactive. She made sure that work processes were in place to manage annual planning work streams and delegated this accountability to her head of operations. When leaders would ask her questions about strategic planning deliverable(s) she would refer them to her COO.
Jane created what we called micro-practices during the day that would allow her to assess if she was focused on the right work, such as repurposing mornings, when she generally felt fresher, for ideating with her direct reports. She caught up on emails twice a day at specific times that were scheduled on her calendar as uninterrupted desk time. Jane gave herself permission to attend her favorite yoga class every week. She also allowed one late day a week to catch up if needed, otherwise she went home on time to be with her family on a more consistent basis.
One of the biggest improvements was testing her assumptions about meetings that had been on the corporate calendar for years. She asked, “do we still need this meeting or could be repurpose this time for something else or just getting work done?” Jane asked meeting owners to provide prereading materials and agendas in advance of each meeting, so everyone arrived ready to have the conversation they needed to have. This practice was about valuing everyone’s time, not just her own. Some meetings were changed to 50 minutes, instead of one hour, so she had time between conversations to relax, breathe deeply, refocus and prepare for the next conversation. Many of her lunch hour meetings with direct reports were shortened as well, and now included a 30-minute walk when the weather was good. As a result of these small changes she found the transitions between meetings more relaxing and centering, and she gained back another 10-15% of her time on a monthly basis.
It took some time to get there, but eventually, Jane was unapologetic about spending her time on the highest leverage activities for the company. Modeling this approach, gave other senior leaders permission to test assumptions about where they spent their time. Over time, meetings became much more efficient and they had less of them on a weekly basis. Senior leaders took these approaches to their own teams, so the wisdom of valuing how people spent their time was passed along to others. This approach aligned with one of their company values of delivering high-quality work and excellence in company performance. Jane’s focused time, resources and energy approach and her ability to pay herself first, ultimately paid time forward for everyone in the company.