John was a top IT project manager who had just become an operations VP in a new company, and we were sitting down to discuss growth goals for both the organization and John in his new role.
“This week has been another whirlwind of activity. It feels like I have a sign on my back that says ‘Ask me to solve your problem — anytime. Really, I wasn’t planning on doing anything important.’ It’s good to have people lean on me, but it’s a little too much at the moment.” John explained.
I chuckled and said, “Yes, welcome to the next level of leadership, where you’re focused on solving people problems more than project issues. The hardest thing about this for new executives, and even for some who have been at this awhile, is the balancing act. It’s sharing your situation and perspective with your peers and managers in a helpful way without sounding like – or actually – complaining or gossiping, while also being accessible to your team in appropriate ways. Who do you feel has more control over how you spend your work time right now, you or your people?”
“I’d love to be able to say it’s me, but I have to fight to carve out time to work on my initiatives and areas of responsibility,” John said. “Take yesterday for instance, I had a morning staff meeting and a site visit planned. Beforehand, I had e-mail to wade through catching me up on various projects and asking for my input. Sarah stopped by 30 minutes before the meeting and needed to talk about an issue related to her client. Then, the meeting wasn’t quite on track, so I had to bring them back to the core issues and that took longer than planned. Not only that, but I left with more on my to do list than I expected or wanted before I made it out the door to the site visit.”
“So, would it be fair to say that for at least right now, you’re running to stay ahead of the people you’re leading and sometimes the parade is taking a direction that you didn’t expect?” I asked.
“Not only that, but it’s a larger group than I’ve ever been responsible for before. I get cc’d on e-mails like never before. The projects are more complex, and I’m still figuring out what my people are capable of doing and where their limits are.”
“So let’s start with a very important concept that business leaders who have survived this stage have told me was very valuable. When you feel like you’re bouncing around like a pinball, the most important thing to do is take a more proactive stance towards how you decide what to do with each part of your day, and the best lens to use at this point is to take stock of your switching costs.
“Switching costs from consumer marketing refers to the price someone pays for moving to a different supplier or vendor, but it’s been used to help boost executive productivity as well. It’s easy to see how Verizon uses fees and incentives (sticks and carrots) to keep customers from jumping over to AT&T, for instance, but the price we pay when we do it to ourselves is much more insidious. Take a moment and think about what price you pay when you jump around from planning to responding to e-mail to answering the phone to letting someone knock on your door and say, ‘Got a minute?’ when it’s hardly ever just a minute.”
“I lose not just time, but also focus, my train of thought, my sense of being in control of my day. Is that what you mean?”
“Yes, John, you’re on the right track. You also have to consider the cost of delays, the cost to other more strategic issues by being distracted, inconveniences incurred, energy drained, and a few other things. To start, let’s make some changes so that you can lead from the front of the parade when you like.”
Your Steps to Success on the Growth Path
- Identify one or two of the big areas where you are paying expensive switching costs in your work or personal life. Have you felt pressured to keep up with the myriad of social media outlets, for example, yet found yourself exhausted from the effort and with little to show for the time invested? On the home front, do you hate to say no to your children and/or spouse and then resent shopping for and preparing different meals for dinner? Solution: If keeping up is always going to be harder to do than the payoff, then pull back from a losing battle. Delegate or outsource the social media duties. Announce that the special order meal plan is coming to an end, and instead, each family member will take a turn cooking or cleaning.
- Plan your week proactively by blocking out time to do your most important priorities. These are the “big rocks” that Steven Covey talks about that shouldn’t be surrendered. It makes sense to then batch return phone calls during a period of the day, do project work during another part of the day, and reserve another part of the day for meetings. Not every day will work out as neatly as you expect, but the more you plan your activities with this strategy in mind, the more your calendar (and results) will look less scattered.
- Don’t fear switching costs. Breakthroughs in either business or personal gains lie just on the other side of a switch, and it is almost always a toll road. It could be something as straightforward as a business moving its application suite from an Exchange server to a cloud-based service like Google Enterprise (where the IT folks will fight reactively to have a server where they can “see” it). The benefits are numerous, the overall costs, including support, are dramatically lower, and the learning curve is easy; yet there’s a period where it feels uncomfortable because the change is requiring you to think differently about how and where you access your documents. Talking about changes like this with your team in advance will help people get acclimated faster.