In my years of coaching founders, owners, and executives, I've found that one key skill is the doorway to just about everything else. Get this one thing right, and everything else follows. Screw it up, and you'll face an uphill battle all the way.
What is this magic skill? In a simpler age, it was called time management. A while back, the terminology changed to productivity management.
Now, in the 24/7 information era, I prefer to call it environment control-- the ability to manage the swirling, chaotic, constant flow of information, decisions and tasks that surround every leader.
Why is this seemingly mechanistic skill so important in the development of leaders? The answer is simple, but hiding in plain sight: I've found that most would-be leaders have the mental, emotional, and physical resources necessary to develop whatever skill or attribute is asked of them.
Whether developing as a leader requires you to work on the art of delegation, or more courageous risk-taking, or becoming more innovative (your mileage will vary), chances are you are quite capable of developing that skill. If you have the time and space to do it.
And there's the kicker: you probably don't have the time and space to do it. You start with good intentions, but the sheer pressure of other commitments and the constant inflow of new demands, new information, prevent you from taking a disciplined, structured approach to building the new skill you need.
Net result, six months later, little has changed. You're still not delegating enough, not thinking strategically enough, not innovating enough. Taking a firm grip on the environment around you--getting to the point where you can control how and where you spend your limited resources--involves radically upending how you approach three key areas of your life:
1. Your Calendar.
If you regularly slough off meetings because you're overbooked, end the day embarrassed because you failed to show for conference calls you were expected on, or spend your time scurrying from one late-running meeting to the next, you're not going to develop as a leader. You'll simply stay on the same hamster-wheel, trapped in a groundhog day of your own making. No excuse: Great leaders have the exact same 24 hours a day that you do. They just manage them better.
2. Your Commitments.
When was the last time you made an inventory of all the outstanding commitments you've made to others? Or even just noted down the commitments you casually added in one day?
Stuck leaders fail to realize that we can't keep making commitments, large and small, without at some point overloading our ability to deliver on those commitments. If you've reached the point where others can't trust you to do what you say you'll do, you have a systemic problem--one that will fatally stall your ability to grow as a leader.
3. Your Communications.
Got 400 unread emails in your inbox? Looking at a reading pile the size of a small library? Do outstanding reports and presentations start yelling for attention every time you open your laptop?
If so, your ability to lead is being compromised--severely compromised--by the pressure to manage.
I wish I had a magician's ability to make the problem of environment control go away overnight. I don't. But I do know that until you fix it, you'll never be the leader you want to be.
There is a solution, but requires hard work (sadly, not a popular concept in much of today's leadership literature). Grab one of the many great resources on environment control, and invest the time needed to install systems and processes that will give you mastery over your calendar, commitments and communications.
Personally, I highly recommend David Allen's classic guide, Getting Things Done (full disclosure, the author is a friend of mine, but I admired and benefited from his book long before we met), but there are many others out there. The issue is not a shortage of resources. The issue is your commitment.
Are you prepared to invest time to learn the only leadership skill you may ever need?