by John Beeson
Good managers study time management techniques. They analyze their calendars and prioritize their to-do lists in an effort to eke out a few percentage points of extra personal productivity — which is all to the good. Great managers, by contrast, realize a fundamental fact: their time, not budget or staffing levels, is their scarcest resource and their team must be staffed and organized in a way that will maximize their own, personal impact.
A few years ago I was asked to coach an executive I’ll call Tom. He had been promoted to a key role on the company’s leadership team a few months before. At Tom’s request, I interviewed his boss as well as a number of his direct reports and executive team peers. They were uniform in their praise. Tom had settled in nicely as a member of the leadership team, and he was viewed as a strong manager by his team members. Then why was Tom so frustrated and overwhelmed? He told me he felt like he was running from one meeting to the other and that too much time was devoted to working through his e-mail. He also mentioned that he had a solid team of experienced subject matter experts, but he wasn’t sure how much more he could delegate to them. The rest of the company thought Tom was doing fine—but he felt like he was drowning.
I suggested that Tom give thought to four questions:
1. Where could he add the greatest value to the company in his new role?
2. What were the topics and issues he should be intimately involved in — and which could he off-load to staff?
3. How was he spending his time today — and how would he like to be spending his time six months from now in order to devote adequate time to his value-adding role?
4. What changes would he have to make to his team — in terms of its composition and how he managed it— to achieve that goal?
Tom and I agreed to reconnect after the weekend, and when we met Monday, it was clear he’d spent those few days in some deep contemplation. He was crystal clear about how he could add the greatest value to the company. One way or another, he needed to free up time to meet with customers and other external stakeholders, work on future strategy, build support among his executive team peers for new strategic initiatives, and help develop the firm’s next generation of leaders. Since there were a number of activities on his calendar that were pretty much mandated (attending executive committee meetings, leading team staff meetings, doing performance reviews, and so forth), the big variable that he could control was the strength of his team and how he managed it.
Originally, he had considered his team to be solid and experienced. However, he now realized there were no direct reports to whom he could delegate significant responsibilities such as overseeing the implementation of a major enterprise resource planning system in the department—a task that required not only technical knowledge but the ability to influence managers in several other departments. And that was a problem. He also realized that he was spending a lot of time following up with people on issues large and small. Although such monitoring was important, he wondered how it could be done more efficiently.
Tom was serious about the goal of allocating his time toward value-added activities. He realized that he couldn’t “build Rome in a day,” but he took some tangible steps to move in that direction. His first was to appoint a highly organized staff member as a de facto chief of staff. He met regularly with that direct report and authorized her to follow up with other team members on his behalf and help prepare staff meeting agendas so that team meetings were more focused on reviewing the status of major priorities within Tom’s division.
He also met with his assistant to create some ground rules about which meetings he would attend. Previously, she would schedule Tom for meetings based on others’ requests—without necessarily checking to see if the topic of the meeting was a priority for him. Tom was highly knowledgeable and creative, so people throughout the company loved to have him at their meetings. And since he was now a member of the executive team, they also relished the chance to connect with a senior manager. Tom was sorry to have to disappoint people, but he became in his words “ruthless” about which meetings he chose to go to. On occasion he would schedule himself for just the beginning and end of a long planning meeting to free up time.
These steps, it turned out, were the easy part. Tom’s recognition that there was no one to whom he could delegate more responsibility was a real eye opener. He also realized that several of his seasoned lieutenants were not going anywhere within the company and were blocking the upward mobility of some potential rising stars. It took several months and some difficult conversations, but Tom helped two direct reports move on to new roles. This allowed him to recruit one high-potential manager from outside and promote one of the rising stars.
After they got settled in, Tom was pleasantly surprised by how his organization responded to the changes. There was a new energy, and people became more willing to challenge old ways of doing things and take on more responsibility. As a result, Tom found himself spending less time doing and more time coaching his talented people—activities very much in line with his staff–development priority.
You might be tempted to interpret Tom’s focus on the value-added role he wanted to play as self-serving. However, think about the results. By taking steps to boost his personal impact, Tom stepped up to the activities an executive is expected to perform and increased the company’s ROI on the investment in his position. In the process he found time to nurture future leaders for the company and increase the overall capability of his team. What CEO could argue with that?