A client once told me that if breathing weren’t automatic, he would have a hard time scheduling it in. Sounds ridiculous, right? But compared to five years ago, 46% of leaders are putting more hours and energy into their work. A big reason: The ever-increasing volume of data — emails, texts, voicemails and tweets. On average, we touch our phones 2,617 times day, pulling us out of the present into a rushing stream of tasks. The result? Our work product and emotional well-being suffer, and the teams we manage feel overwhelmed.
It doesn’t have to be this way. After speaking with 50 executives from Fortune 500 companies, it became evident that exceptionally successful leaders strategically manage the overwhelming volume of work and their reactions to it.
“Without a disciplined process, you will drown,” said David Shapiro, general counsel and executive vice president at Vail Resorts. “Ninety-nine percent of people fight through it and collapse. The remaining 1% take a regimented approach and implement a process that cuts through it.”
Here are four strategies that emerged from the interviews:
Pinpoint the vital few versus the trivial many.
Exceptionally successful leaders don’t try to “boil the ocean.” Instead, they focus their team’s efforts on doing an “A” job on a limited number of initiatives vs. a “B” job across a broader portfolio.
“We always talk about the fact that everything is important, but ‘less is more’ is one of my key business philosophies,” said John Corley, president and CEO at Xerox Canada. “My team has no more than five and no less than three things to focus on. Other things can fall off the plate, but not those.”
Tim, an executive interviewed and one of my coaching clients, learned this lesson the hard way. As a newly promoted SVP at a Fortune 200 company, he was eager to prove himself. So, within his first 90 days, Tim doubled the number of priorities on his direct report’s dashboards. Excited by the vision he had painted, his team tackled the projects head-on. Initially, there was a spike in performance. But over the course of a year, the results declined. Nine months later, Tim had lost two of his direct reports — his team was burned-out and spiraling in the wrong direction.
Tim reached out to me for help. What became immediately evident was that he had failed to identify the few priorities that were vital to the trajectory of the business. We stepped back and looked at which initiatives were critical from an economic, customer and stakeholder perspective, and put the weight of the team behind those. Within six months, the team was back in the black.
Learn to say “no” or “not me.”
By identifying the vital few, you earn permission to say “no” to other tasks. Whatever doesn’t make the list automatically becomes less important. In the words of entrepreneur and writer Derek Sivers, “If it’s not a ‘hell yeah,’ then it’s a ‘no!”
Anne, a group vice president who was interviewed for this article and also a coaching client, taught this lesson to her direct report, a VP with newborn twins. As a father of two, he was struggling with work-life balance. His outcomes in both areas were suffering.
Anne sat with him and parsed through his calendar, asking the following questions:
1. Does this task truly have to be done?
2. Does this have to be done by you, or could it be done someone else?
3. If it has to be done by you, what is the most efficient way to complete it?
Through this exercise, the VP was able to screen out 45% of the tasks on his calendar and worked more effectively at the ones that he owned. The laser focus paid off: Within six months, he delivered $50 million of operating income and was still able to be an engaged and present father.
Manage your calendar.
Oftentimes, we schedule meetings and tasks without assessing their value. Instead, we end up running at too many priorities, yielding diminishing returns on the effort invested throughout the week.
Time is a limited resource. The executives interviewed proactively manage their calendars on a weekly basis by:
1. Looking ahead to see what they can consolidate, delegate or move off their calendar.
2. Assessing standing meetings to determine whether they’re still adding value.
3. Setting aside whitespace to think and get organized.
4. Creating a consistent process for running meetings and managing their days.
“I often get made fun of for how consistently I run my meetings,” said Shapiro, “but here’s the thing: When every meeting has a consistent feeling, cadence and structure, you move through the content much faster. That allows us to get through a 30-minute meeting in 20 minutes so that we can reinvest the remaining time in relationships.”
Increase your return on interactions.
Personal connections significantly influence an employee’s ability to perform. And yet, with the onslaught of information and data, we have become a technology-driven work environment where employees spend more than 10 hours a day in front of multiple screens. When we are in front of people, we are often in back-to-back meetings with limited time to connect and build trust.
Brian Stern, group vice president at DaVita, has found that the ability to create those connections quickly is what separates exceptional leaders from the rest. “Nowadays, it’s table stakes to show that you can operate and scale a large team. As your role expands, you can measure the amount of time you get with certain individuals in minutes. To truly succeed, you can’t solely use a metrics-based leadership approach.”
How do we create these high-quality interactions with others quickly?
1. Ask powerful questions that pull from their personal experiences.
2. Demonstrate vulnerability by sharing meaningful stories about yourself.
3. Generate emotion when you speak to others to help fuel them up for the rest of the day.
With these strategies, leaders can save their teams from drowning in the volume, helping them finally make headway on the tasks that matter most. And when they begin to see green shoots of progress, as Corley said, “It will build a positive flywheel that will end up propelling the success of the individual and the organization forward.”