State of the Art

Executives can't buy more time, but with the right tools and strategies they can do more with the time they have

Karen Settle, president and CEO of Keystone Marketing Specialists, is about to engage in a bit of high-tech multitasking. Keystone, a $5-million company based in Las Vegas, provides retail-employee training for computing and electronics vendors such as IBM, Acer, and Kodak. With a staff of 15 at its headquarters, the four-year-old company relies on some 300 independent contractors nationwide to get the job done--and on state-of-the-art conference calls to motivate and train them.

Settle has just kicked off one such conference call, during which 30 far-flung contractors get the lowdown on new PC products from a Keystone trainer. Settle hits the Mute button on her phone and logs on to America Online. A former sixth-grade teacher well versed in the art of writing on the blackboard while monitoring a class, she listens to the conference call "with one ear" as she clicks on the first of 30 waiting E-mail messages. She prints out some for future reference and types brief replies to others. One message, from a project manager, is about a potential new employee. Settle responds with a couple of questions, receives satisfactory answers a few minutes later, and sends another E-mail with the hiring approval. All of this takes place as the coast-to-coast conference call continues on her office speakerphone.

"There's no question that my personal productivity is crucial to the fast growth of this company," says Settle, who gained start-up savvy as hiree number 80 or so at Compaq Computer Corp. back in 1981. "Because start-ups tend to run skinny on people, and there are only so many hours in the day, you have to do a lot more or you won't survive. The pace is too fast. I'm always looking for new technology to increase productivity. I live technology."

Settle is hardly unique, either in her problem or her solutions. Along with cloning themselves, a fantasy that must rank high on most CEO wish lists, the thing harried entrepreneurs want most is more time. But since that's not possible, many fall back on the next-best thing: better time management. Toward that end, they are quick to try the latest techniques and technology, anything that might make them--and, by extension, their companies--more productive. They strap pagers onto their belts, tote cellular phones, boot up palm-sized personal digital assistants (PDAs), and run their companies via voice mail, E-mail, and fax.

Tools like those are selling at a tremendous clip, and anecdotal evidence suggests that they are helping executives shave time off activities and cross items off to-do lists. The question remains, however, whether the personally reengineered CEO necessarily sits at the helm of a better-run, more productive organization. We already know that it's possible to have too much information. Is it also possible to be too accessible? To overregiment your time?

The most effective executives appear to have considered these questions and, in response, have developed personal productivity regimens that exploit technology while clearly setting limits on how much they let it control their lives. Settle, for example, shudders at the thought of trying to run her business without her two favorite tools--her Motorola cellular phone and SkyTel SkyWord pager. Stand in line to use a pay phone and then, counting access code and calling-card number, punch in 36 numbers to make a call? ... No way! But still, Settle rarely leaves her cell phone on, limiting its use to outgoing calls. Clients, employees, and family members know to dial her 800 pager number and dictate a brief message, which minutes later scrolls across a tiny screen.

When Settle is out of the office, the pager is clipped to her skirt and set on "vibrate." The 240-character limit on messages (spaces and punctuation count, too) helps keep them short and sweet, a virtue fast fading from E-mail and voice mail. And since one efficient employee--even if it's the CEO--does not a successful company make, Settle has equipped all of her key employees with pagers as well.

Thanks to the pager, Settle is always available--emergency or not. Unfortunately, that hasn't done much to foster employee independence. Settle admits that she is often overbeeped by her staff. But that's happening less frequently now, as she's been able to demonstrate examples of unnecessary pages and urge employees to think carefully before making a call. Her lone guideline: if it's a client issue, use the pager.

Similarly, Settle has devised a strategy for dealing with the growing problem of E-mail overload. To avoid wasting time opening and scrolling through junk mail and unimportant messages, she has created a subaccount, analogous to an unlisted telephone number, whose address she gives out sparingly. Knowing that important E-mail comes into that account, she checks it first. An assistant monitors her general account, which Settle peruses herself when there's time.

While some people complain that such an abundance of technology is depersonalizing, Settle says she finds her high-tech communication links actually nurture relationships with clients and employees. "I'm a great believer in touching people, giving them support and accolades," she explains. "With today's technology, you can do that." Using the robust conference-call capabilities in Keystone's Meridian phone system, for example, Settle has addressed and motivated as many as 70 geographically scattered contract employees with a single call. And when a pat on the back is merited but not physically possible, she'll often praise by pager: Good job. I like how you handled that.

Settle herself knows the impact of timely praise. Minutes after she was interviewed on the CNBC program How to Succeed in Business last March, her pager went off. It was her daughter at the University of California, Berkeley: We're really proud of you. Love, Erica.

Although Settle carries around a respectable arsenal of high-tech tools, some of her old, decidedly low-tech classroom habits still serve her well. For example, she uses different colors--red for action, yellow for appointments, green for family--to highlight the items that accumulate in her small appointment book. Running notes and a phone log go into an 8-by-11-inch spiral notebook that's always close at hand. Settle fills a notebook every month or so: by the end it looks a little ratty but still does the job.

Settle says this simple device serves two purposes. First, it captures everything chronologically, in simple diary fashion. Second, it prevents her (for the most part) from scribbling notes and phone numbers on stray pieces of paper--sure tickets to business hell.

Settle talks about replacing her plain-paper notebook with a Cassiopeia hand-held PC. It would function as her address book and as a link to her office E-mail (she rarely lugs a laptop when she travels). But taking notes on the tiny keyboard might be too awkward for client meetings. When she's calling on new accounts, a time when first impressions matter, Settle takes notes on a pad inside a leatherbound portfolio and later staples the pages into her notebook.

This portfolio lies open on a conference table during a midafternoon meeting with a prospective client, Software City, at its Englewood, N.J., headquarters. Twice during the meeting Settle's pager vibrates silently at her waist. She surreptitiously unhooks it and quickly scans the messages below the level of the conference-room table. Asked about this after the meeting, Software City's president and its director of franchisee relations both report they were unoffended by the interruptions. They termed Settle's pager checks "discreet and brief." Nonetheless it seems clear that pager etiquette, like pager technology, remains a work in progress.

Paper Weighting
Like Settle, Joe Phelps recognizes the need to have a strong connection with the business. Nevertheless, he is adamant about maintaining a degree of separation between himself and his company's daily operations. "I'm trying to work more on the business and less in the business," he says.

Phelps is CEO of the Phelps Group, a $25-million-a-year marketing communications agency in West Los Angeles, Calif. His 48-employee firm, which he founded in 1981, has grown at the enviable rate of 26% per year for the past nine years, serving such clients as the tourist boards of Tahiti and Switzerland, Hughes Communications, and Fender Musical Instruments Corp. Phelps attributes some of that success to his own ability to assume rigorous control of his daily schedule, to prioritize his tasks, and to devote more time to planning.

Though his agency has had a long, cutting-edge association with technology (all PCs were networked as early as 1987, and the company has been been waiting two years for clients to catch up to its videoconferencing capabilities), Phelps does not rely on an electronic PDA and on-screen schedules to manage his time. Instead, he sketches out each day in black and white in the pages of a personal planner called the Priority Manager, from Priority Management Systems Inc., which he believes in almost religiously. Not only does Phelps use it, but so does nearly everyone else in the company.

"It's a pretty big investment--about $495 per employee--but I think the payoff happens pretty quickly," says Phelps. The cost includes several training sessions, including one in which a trainer walks through a workday with the employee to help establish better time-budgeting behavior. The system itself melds a calendar of events (meetings, appointments, project deadlines), a daily scheduler, an A-to-Z directory with phone numbers, a communications planner, and a special scheduler for "balance elements" (soccer games, pottery class, Seinfeld). "It's become a part of the company culture," says Phelps. "You don't attend a meeting without your planner." Metaphorically and in practice, everyone's on the same page.

"I let paper do what it does best and technology do what it does best," Phelps says. "The [PDAs] take too long to boot up. If I want a phone number, it's a lot faster for me to flip to the back of my planner." There he keeps a tidy address book printed out from GoldMine, his electronic contact manager.

If the low-tech Priority Manager is Phelps's key personal productivity tool, then regularly scheduled "personal work time" (PWT) is his most important entry. Noting that "too many executives see white and fill it," Phelps unfailingly blocks out six hours a week of PWT--which he generally devotes to "getting the processes right" and big-picture planning. Typically, Phelps's PWT follows an early morning workout at a local health club. After an hour or so of climbing the Stairmaster, Phelps is back in his satellite home office by 8 a.m., working on those 50,000-foot questions like: How can we better live up to our mission statement?

At home, Phelps enjoys the best of both worlds. He has uninterrupted quiet, but also--should he need it--an instant connection to the office. Via modem, he can access his desktop computer at work and check E-mail. He can also access the company's intranet pages, a good way to monitor the status of all client projects.

"As president of the company, I'm copied on a lot of E-mail. My tendency is to reply, but our head of operations suggested I not comment so often," says Phelps, alluding to the importance of giving employees room to grow. He still monitors the flow of messages, however, and admits: "I sometimes have to force myself to keep my hands off the keyboard."

Because some messages just can't be delivered in writing, Phelps has arranged for extensive voice connectivity between his home office and the company. Thanks to an off-premises extension (OPX) line that his phone company provides, he has the equivalent of a hot line to work. Three numbers patch him to anybody's workstation; a special voice-mail feature enables him to punch in a code--say, THT--and leave a batch message for the entire Tahiti team. And, without playing phone tag, Phelps can arrange a meeting for later in the day by checking employee schedules posted on the bulletin board of the company's cc: Mail system.

Refreshed from his workout and PWT, Phelps arrives at the central office between 9 and 10 a.m., ready to join the fray. From its founding, the Phelps Group has thrived on an open-office floor plan, which Phelps finds communally energizing and a good cross-pollinator of ideas. He sits near the apex of the horseshoe of workstations, right in the thick of things, which makes his PWT at home all the more essential.

With technology revolutionizing office communications, Phelps stresses the need to tap the right tool for the right task. "There are three ways to communicate now within our organization: E-mail, voice mail, and face mail," he explains. "Each one has a different bandwidth. When you walk into my workstation, interrupt me, and give me a little schedule change, you've used the wrong medium. E-mail me with that. You don't need a lot of bandwidth. On the other hand, if you try to handle an emotionally charged subject with E-mail, you're using the wrong medium, too."

But that's not to say that just because a matter is small, it is necessarily fodder for E-mail. Phelps recently explained this to his staff, using a case of purloined pizza to illustrate the point.

The Phelps Group is small enough that anyone can push a button and send an E-mail to everyone. One employee recently did just that, asking, "Who took my slice of pizza?" from the group refrigerator. Armed with a perfect teaching tool, Phelps ran through a bit of math at a companywide meeting. Assume--for mathematical simplicity--a billing rate of $60 an hour, or a buck a minute. Roughly 50 employees. Say it took each a half minute to open the "pizza message," read it, and put it in the trash. Twenty-five minutes at a dollar a minute--$25 to try to finger the pizza thief. Says Phelps: "Since we all share 40 percent of the profits, everyone quickly grasped what general E-mail distribution means."

All Wired Up
Unlike the other two CEOs described here, Steven Ettridge is a genuine gadget freak. He got his first computer in 1964, at the tender age of 11, a Stone Age analog with resistors. When he founded the temporary employment agency Temps & Co. in 1981, he used an Apple Lisa to do spreadsheets and budget analysis. By the mid-1980s he was turning heads on the highway as an early cellular-phone user.

Now Ettridge uses his car--a Porsche Carrera, complete with plug-in port for faxes and E-mail--as a mobile office when he shuttles among company headquarters in Washington, D.C., and his 15 offices along the D.C.-Baltimore-Philadelphia corridor. Yet he conspicuously lacks a laptop or notebook computer. Ettridge brands them too heavy, too short on battery life, and too much trouble. But he's a reasonable man: "If they ever come up with a flat-panel color screen around 8-by-11, and the keyboard was on the screen and you could touch it, and it weighed a pound, and the battery lasted a week, and it had a 28.8 modem, then I'd have to reconsider."

Instead, he packs a U.S. Robotics PalmPilot, a Motorola StarTAC cellular phone, and a Motorola text pager. This high-tech trinity lives inside the zippered leather case of his traveling calendar, a three-ring-binder affair, about which he's almost apologetic.

"The ugly little secret--it works like a charm. I've had a hard time finding an electronic scheduling device that's as good as a thin paper calendar," says Ettridge. "I can throw a colored line across three weekly calendars and indicate Uncle George will be in town. I can schedule overlapping appointments and sort out the conflicts later. And I get a permanent record. Computers don't do a good job of archiving."

Like so many other techies, Ettridge is forever replacing his tools with newer, better models. For example, he recently switched PDAs, jettisoning his Sony Magic Link in favor of the PalmPilot. Although he found the Magic Link highly intuitive and a great electronic address book and E-mail tool, "it had one fatal flaw," he explains. "There's no convenient way to back it up. You get your life in there, and if it craps out and dies, you're cooked."

Thanks to a special cradle accessory called HotSync, Ettridge's new PalmPilot downloads from or uploads to a PC in seconds. On the road, he'll retrieve E-mail in the car and then between appointments (or occasionally during a plodding meeting) scan his electronic messages and compose replies.

Still, like Settle, Ettridge gets the most use out of his mobile phone and pager. He says he's become so dependent on them that he'd plead with a mugger: "Here's my wallet. Don't take my other stuff." It's not surprising then that Ettridge maintains "hot backups" of both. His car phone and mobile phone share the same number, and he always keeps a spare pager at work.

That safeguard served him well during a trip to Philadelphia last April. Arriving in town for the Presidents' Summit on Volunteerism, Ettridge suddenly realized he'd left his pager in his car, which was parked in a garage near Union Station in Washington. He called his office and had his spare sent by overnight mail.

Without his pager, Ettridge is truly handicapped, for he's found that cellular phones make "terrible incoming devices." Give out your number and not only will the thing ring you numb, but you're also obliged to answer it. So Ettridge, like Settle, uses his phone almost exclusively for outgoing calls, mainly responding to pager messages that he reads at his convenience.

The tiny pager is a real workhorse, the technological equivalent of baking soda. Ettridge uses it to write himself messages, sort of like a string around the finger. He'll sometimes "call himself" and leave a message or a to-do list. The alarm reminds him of an important meeting or call, and he sleeps with the pager at his bedside, set for two wake-up buzzes. "It's my power alarm," he says.

How does Ettridge keep up with new models and features for all this gear? He doesn't. Instead, he's delegated that job to his systems manager, who serves as a technology coach. "He gets to buy all the productivity tools he wants, and he gives me a Reader's Digest [report on] whether it's worth playing with or not," says Ettridge. The 20 to 30 percent of stuff that doesn't pass muster with this high-tech "royal taster" can generally be returned for full refunds within 30 days. Companies lacking an obvious "toy meister" to serve as technology coach need not despair, says Ettridge. "If you have college kids, one of them would love the job."

Armed with his mobile phone, pager, and electronic address book, Ettridge fields as many as five- or six-dozen phone calls a day, even while out of the office. That helps explain his very different strategy at home. "The last thing I want to do is get home and find two-dozen calls waiting for me," he says. At first, he fought back by recording a message saying, "Sorry, the tape is full." When that angered some folks, he decided to take a more daring step for this technological age: he unplugged the answering machine.

John Grossmann is editor and publisher of NewsReach, a monthly small-business newsletter based in Mountain Lakes, N.J.

Why are you telling me all this?
The push-button ease of E-mail and the never-out-of-touch capabilities of a pager/cellular-phone combo have many CEOs wondering how they ever did without. But as with most productivity advances, there's a dark side. "The potential pitfall with E-mail is overload, and the same goes for pagers," says Gene Griessman, an Atlanta-based time-management consultant and author of the book Time Tactics of Very Successful People (McGraw-Hill, 1996). "Burnout is a major possibility if you're always accessible. My recommendation: put yourself in your appointment book. Schedule some time every day for quiet or recreation." Griessman also offers four suggestions for fighting E-mail overload:

  • For intracompany E-mail, assign messages a priority ranking (A, B, C or 1, 2, 3) to flag their importance.
  • Preface each long message with a synopsis of what it's all about, modeled after abstracts found at the beginning of scientific papers.
  • Also up top, highlight upcoming action items.
  • Consider establishing a second E-mail account for urgent and high-priority messages or key clients.