Surely you agree that you should spend most of your time on your company's top priorities and less on what doesn't matter. So, uh, why don't you?
A business founder recently approached me with a familiar complaint. “Rob, I am working 80 hours a week,” he said. “We recently lost two key clients and I just can’t seem to come up for air. My senior employees are frustrated with me. My wife is ready to kill me.”
I asked how he spent his time. He reflected for a few awkward minutes and then responded, “I don’t know.” He spent the next three weeks keeping track of every hour. He broke down the results into categories of tasks. He then compared these results with his top three to five priorities, the tasks he believed were most critical to his success.
What did he find? To his surprise and embarrassment, only 35 percent of his time was spent on his top priorities: meeting with clients, product innovation and coaching/development of his people. The remainder, nearly two-thirds of this time, was spent on administrative tasks that probably had to be done by someone at the company but were not critical to the company’s success.
How could the mismatch be so large? First, and this is pretty simple: He didn’t have his priorities clearly written down. When someone came to his office for help, he reflexively said “yes” rather than determining whether the request matched one of his top priorities. Many of the tasks he performed had always been done by the CEO over the years, even though the needs of the company had dramatically changed.
Also, he didn’t consciously delegate non-priority tasks to others. He didn’t regularly communicate his vision and key priorities to his team, and as a result they were uncertain whether to approach him with certain issues or to handle the tasks themselves. They also were unclear as to how to prioritize their own time. Most important, he didn’t focus on the idea that time allocation should match top priorities.
As a result of this epiphany, he went back to the office and tacked his written priorities to his wall. He encouraged his direct reports to do the same. Lastly, he set a goal for himself to achieve at least a 70 percent match. These simple steps made it easier for him to say “no,” helped him delegate, and freed up time for him to meet with clients and focus on the other key drivers of his company’s success. He reported back six months later that he was working far fewer hours and the business performance had dramatically improved.
This is not an unusual story. When I see a leader or business that is struggling, invariably there is a meaningful mismatch between time allocation and top priorities. This issue is often about mindset. Many executives approach spending their time as if it were free when, in fact, it is the most valuable asset a leader has.
If you agree about the importance of your time, ask yourself: Do you act like it? If not, apply some real rigor to this issue: Analyze your time, prioritize it and measure your execution, just as you would any other important company initiative.
Of course, you can’t do this if you haven’t decided in advance on your top priorities. Also, you have to learn to say “no” and be willing to delegate. You’ll never create a perfect match, but aiming for 70 percent alignment is a good place to start. Try this and encourage your direct reports to do the same. It will dramatically improve your ability to lead and will ensure that your organization is focusing on what really matters.
ROBERT S. KAPLAN: Rob Kaplan is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard and author of What to Ask the Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential. @Robskaplan