It’s a topic that crops up in coaching all the time: how to cut through the sheer volume of activity, identify the priorities, and do what matters, without getting drawn into things that aren’t key, or that don’t support the strategy. In short, how to stay on track.
A simple matter of knowing what’s most important, and doing that – doesn’t sound so hard… So why does it consistently elude really smart, talented people?
Shut in a quiet room, with a pen and paper, most business leaders could quickly write a list of the strategic goals for their business.
It’s not prioritisation that seems to be the problem. It’s realtime prioritisation – the challenge of the plan colliding with a very fluid reality. So what happens?
Usually, it’s a hierarchy thing – not necessarily a hierarchy in terms of who’s most senior (though this may be a factor for some!). But a hierarchy of importance. The hierarchy that you decide, in your world, is most important. Which is in turn, likely to be determined by the hierarchy of values that you hold dear, and will probably run yourself ragged trying to keep in place.
The scenario could go something like this: you have a Board paper to complete that you are presenting tomorrow morning.
You also have a difficult staff issue that has cropped up this afternoon where you have the strongest relationship with the person in question, and they are feeling particularly fragile.
At the same time, a peer who you’ve worked alongside for 15 years needs you as a sounding board about a difficult situation he’s facing with his boss, ahead of a one to one the boss set for the end of the day.
Plus, your boss has asked you to attend a 3 hour session this afternoon where you are the subject matter expert, and he needs your in-depth knowledge on hand in a call with the regulator.
Where would you start? If you decide how to tackle this list, unconsciously as often happens, it will be based on values hierarchy, it may look like this:
- Help long standing colleague (core value – loyalty - ‘we go back a long way’ matters above all else, next value – help others particularly if vulnerable – and he is).
- Support staff member (value – help others particularly if vulnerable).
- Be on call with boss (value – respect for authority - he is my boss!).
- Complete board paper (value – put others before yourself – code for ‘I can do this at home over night’).
Or it could look like this:
- Be on call with boss (core value – achievement for me - he is my boss so his view is the most important and this is a chance to show what I know!).
- Complete board paper (core value – achievement for me – code for ‘I have to look good in front of the Board or I’ll have missed a chance to shine’).
- Support staff member (value – achievement for me – look good in front of the boss, and I can then tell him how I dealt with a tricky situation and saved this person from becoming a flight risk).
- Help long standing colleague (value – friendship - which means give and take – I’ve known him a long time, he’ll understand I just have to put business first, I’ll give him a call on my way home and see how it went).
These might seem fair enough, or extreme, or self-centered, or a bit weak – depending on your point of view… and your own value set.
What might a conscious, priority-based approach look like – one that truly balances business priority with care for self and others?
Like this perhaps:
- Do first review of board paper in an hour and pass to boss for headline comment, then to staff members for clarification on their contributions – set aside an hour at the end of the day to complete (core value – business priority, this is strategic and so I should prioritise my time on this, and, I can be smart about how I do it).
- Call with boss – go to see him for 15 minutes to check exactly what he needs, explain that it’s great that it’s you he really trusts, but one of your direct reports can do an even better job on that topic so they will attend to provide that input. You will attend to introduce them for 10 minutes at the start, and will join again for the final 20 minutes to ensure your boss is happy (value – support an urgent business need as a colleague – I can help here, and, I don’t need to ‘jump to it’ – more mature to offer this considered suggestion - provides expertise that resides in my department, reassures boss, demonstrates capability and flexibility in my team, gives my direct report a chance to shine).
- Call long standing colleague, ask what he most needs from the time, coach him to get clear on this (10 minutes), agree a time later this pm to meet and for half an hour to make sure he gets what he needs (value – I know he can work this through himself, and that he values my support - we can achieve a lot in a short time if he is clear on what he needs).
- Support staff member (value – support others particularly if vulnerable) – I have now created a window of up to an hour that I can spend with this person so that I can give them proper attention, and I will then be able to focus on and complete my Board paper.
Of course this is not a ‘right answer’. It’s simply an example of how it’s possible for someone to explore their hierarchy of values, and to find new ways to honour them, whilst maintaining the professionalism and business focus for which they are paid; yet ensuring that they also honour their personal preferences.
What this person did to arrive at their version of ‘right answer’, the answer that worked best for them, was to spend a little time consciously thinking through the priorities – prioritising prioritisation in fact, and setting aside a short time for this before leaping to action.