5 Ways Great Leaders Do Great Work at the Last Minute
Time is running out. The column I'd planned to run today fell apart. I need to find a replacement, and fast.
As the reader you'll get the last word, but I think I can pull this off.
Top performers get called on all the time to bring their A-game with little notice.
Sales professionals have to close deals with less than perfect information. Lawyers have to try cases without enough preparation. Entertainers have to fill in for ailing colleagues in roles they don't know well. They suck it up, they get excited, and they get into the game. They prove just productive they really are.
So let's see if I can both write this column and live its message at the same time. Here are five key things to do when you're called on to perform and you have nowhere near enough time to prepare.
1. Stop and look around.
Don't just do something! Stand there!
Yes, this can be the opposite of your initial inclination, but when you're called on to perform at the last minute, the best thing to do at the start is absolutely nothing. Panic gets you nowhere, so take a breath, take a moment, and assert calmness and control.
Unless you're being called on to defuse a ticking bomb or rush into emergency surgery, the few seconds you take to get your stress and emotions under control probably won't make much difference anyway. The game isn't going to start without you.
2. Assess and triage.
Next, prioritize. Define the essential things you have to accomplish, and strip away the things you can do without.
The absolutely essential component of this column, for example, is providing value: good advice, smart takeaways and a writing style that will let you get through the whole thing. It might be nice to interview a former CEO of a Fortune 500 company and get his or her take on the subject. But at 11:30 p.m., that's probably not going to happen.
3. Fall back on your strengths.
The pressure of acting at the last minute can inspire creativity. For example, President Roosevelt was apparently rewriting his Pearl Harbor speech to Congress even in the car on the way to the U.S. Capitol. (If he hadn't, we'd remember December 7, 1941 now as "a date that will go down in world history.")
That said, under pressure, the smartest move can be to go with your strengths. If you have to give a speech with no notice for example, this is a good time to keep it short and fall back on words you've used before.
As a columnist, that means I'm probably not going to start a brand-new exploration of big data, or else interview a half-dozen former NFL players who became entrepreneurs for this column. Instead, it's an obvious choice to write about leadership, entrepreneurship and how ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things--three topics that I absolutely love, and that readers seem to enjoy.
4. Ask for help.
One of my assistants is editing my work on a ghostwriting project that I'll have to finish tomorrow. Meantime, my wife not only worked all day and made dinner for us tonight, but she's now also cleaning up the kitchen. (I'll have to make up for that later in the week.)
Nobody does anything worthwhile alone, and when you're pressed for time, you're going to need help from other people to perform. Don't be afraid to ask; just remember how much you needed them and how generous they were with their time.
5. Charge ahead.
Let's be honest. It can be exciting and gratifying to be called on to come in at the last minute and save the day. It gets the adrenaline rushing. Some people truly find they're more focused under pressure, and that they perform better than when they have all the time in the world.
Regardless, there comes a point when the waiting is over. Forget about the time crunch; forget about not having enough time to prepare. Just go ahead with whatever you've got--and perform. (Or else in my case, write and edit the column and hit the "submit for review" button).
And maybe, just maybe, resolve to be better prepared next time.
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BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist
Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.