Do you ever feel locked into an endless series of back-to-back meetings, overwhelmed by a bulging email inbox and swamped with a list of actions on a never-ending ‘to do’ list. If so, the reassuring news is you’re not alone! If there is one challenge that leaders struggle with most widely, it is the one typically manifesting itself as ‘time pressure’.
Closely linked with these practical problems are some other, more deep-seated concerns: getting distracted by a steady stream of complex operational issues; being drawn into details that should ideally be handled by other people; giving insufficient focus to the strategic priorities that matter most.
Conventional wisdom states that disciplined use of some classic time management tools can help alleviate the situation. But using glib guidelines like ‘focus on the important, rather than the urgent’ doesn’t help when so many issues seem both urgent and important.
The secret to cracking this apparent time management challenge lies in framing it differently. Although the problem might manifest itself as a challenge of better managing your time, the real issue lies in better managing your role.
It is very easy for leaders to get dragged into playing the role of an operator/manager. Being good at getting things done well is what gets us to the point of being leaders in the first place. It’s not surprising then that there’s often a strong temptation to use our experience to ensure those high standards are maintained. If we’re honest, the work often involves activities that we enjoy too – so it’s doubly tempting! But being a leader means leaving these operational activities to other people and lifting up to focus our time and energy on different, more strategic tasks.
This is easier said than done, so here are five steps to help you manage your role – and thereby your time – more effectively:
to reflect on what you’re doing today and why. Firstly, and most importantly, take a moment to stop and reflect on what is actually going on. If you’re caught on a hamster wheel, running faster and faster is not going to help. Pause to consider what you’re spending your time doing on a day-to-day basis. Have a look at your diary – back in time and forwards – and add up the percentages of your time that go on different types of activity.Make sure you don’t just look at your work diary. How much time are you allocating to your family, your friends and yourself too? Are you happy with the way things are balancing out? If not, what needs to change?
It’s important to think deeply about this question, exploring within yourself the underlying motivations and mindsets that might explain why you spend your time in the ways you do. Are you struggling with an underlying fear of failure, driving you to work ever harder or to seek excessive levels of control? Do you have a high need for social inclusion which makes it difficult for you to step out of key meetings and community discussions? Having some insight into the less conscious drivers of your behaviour will be invaluable in helping you move forward.
your desired role as a leader. The next step is to define what you think your agenda could and should be as a leader. Another reason leaders often default to operator/manager mode is that they are not sufficiently clear about what being a leader really entails in practice. Without this clarity, it is difficult to know how best to refocus one’s attention and energy.What are the fundamental issues facing the business that only you can help it confront and address? What can you do to make the biggest possible impact on its performance, not just in the short term but longer term too? Which are the decisions only you can take, versus the ones you can leave to others in your team?Being in leader mode involves focusing more externally, considering the broader market context, looking for the bigger strategic picture, building organisational capability and culture, managing the energy of the team and strengthening relationships with – and between – key stakeholders.
All this doesn’t mean that there won’t occasionally be some important operational issues that need your attention. But you’re unlikely to get the balance right if you haven’t defined the role you need to play as a leader in order for the business to maximise its potential.
your team’s responsibilities and expectations. Once your new agenda is clear, you will almost certainly need to recalibrate who is doing what within your team. If you are going to be taking on some new roles and responsibilities, which are the ones you will give up? And who can you pass them on to?Your colleagues will also no doubt be very busy already, so some tough prioritisation calls might be necessary. Are there some activities you can stop altogether?
There may also be some questions over leadership team structure and recruitment. Do you have the necessary resource and expertise available within your team to help take the load off you? If not, how quickly can you get it in place?
You will also need to consider how you recalibrate your leadership team dynamics.
In any working group, certain habits become established in your ways of working together and these mindsets and behaviours can be difficult to break. If you’ve typically been involved in making detailed decisions, that’s what your colleagues will expect you to keep doing. If you just stop without warning them, the resulting vacuum could lead to problems. So you need to think about signalling your intention to make changes in your ways of working, so that your colleagues can make the necessary compensatory changes too.
your diary commitments proactively. Once you have done this groundwork, the next step is to begin planning your time differently by making some proactive changes in your diary. What can you stop doing? Are there any meetings you no longer need to attend?What will you start doing? Can you be more disciplined and efficient by carving out diary slots systematically for different types of activity – personal reflection time, one-to-one sessions with direct reports, meetings outside the office, graft time to clear the emails etc. Batching up your tasks in this way will help you show up in the right mindset for the right activity at the right time.But it’s not just about what you’re doing – it’s also important to plan how you go about doing it. As an example, how will you use your one-to-ones going forward? Will you ask your direct reports simply to update you on all their activities? Or will you focus more on the biggest issues where you can add value? How can you use the meetings to coach your team members, building their confidence and capability so they can handle things with less of your involvement in future? And will you focus only on the content of the job, or use the opportunity to inspire them and strengthen their relationship with you personally?
how you handle situations. Careful diary planning is essential, but your success will depend ultimately on how you handle yourself and your work in practice, day-to-day. It’s very easy to be overtaken by events or the demands that other people make on your time. Will you skip a diary slot you’ve reserved to do some strategic thinking the first time someone asks you to attend an ‘important’ meeting instead? Will you get drawn into solving a product or customer service issue as soon as the next one arises?To avoid this kind of derailment, it’s crucial to become more conscious in choosing how you react to the situations you encounter from moment-to-moment. Are you responding to them in leader mode – stepping back, keeping your eye on the bigger picture, empowering and coaching others to handle the details? Or are you getting drawn back into your old habits – diving in to sort things out, relying on your personal expertise, sacrificing your own priorities for those of others?
The transition you go through will not always be easy, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Keep learning from your experience and sharpen your decision-making and behaviour as you go along. It will be important to return occasionally to ‘pause’ and check in with yourself and the progress you’re making.
The benefits will soon become evident – not just in some welcome easing of the time pressure you’re working under, but also in the enhanced strategic impact you’re having as a leader of the business.