Staying focused and organized in leadership positions

Over the past several years I’ve developed, borrowed, learnt from others, and adapted techniques I use to keep myself focused and organized in leadership positions. There is nothing earth shattering about these techniques, but I’ve found that when I give this advice to friends and colleagues they find it very valuable. So I figured I’d share it with you, in no particular order…

Keep your calendar free in a given week at 40% to 50% availability.
Many years ago, I asked a very successful VC how he gauged if a CEO/leader was going to be great. His answer was so simple and so telling; he looked at the person’s calendar and if it was packed full of back-to-back meetings he knew the leader was likely a “reactional” leader, as they’d have little to no time to reflect, think about where the business is going, or fire fight critical issues without canceling existing meetings. The reality is that it is easy to book up your calendar 100%, heck some even book 125%+ (and disappoint folks often); if you do this, you really are reacting to what you are hearing from one meeting to another or emails/text’s you might be getting between meetings. It’s much harder to keep your calendar 50% open in a given week, however, I’ve found that the net positive effects/traits are plentiful and was what the VC was looking for in this simple calendar observation. As an example, in order to carve out time on your calendar you’ll be forced to pick and choose which meetings you absolutely need to attend/participate in and you’ll need to delegate other meetings and the decisions to your managers so you are no longer the bottleneck. This will affect who you choose as your management team and the trust you’ll need to develop in order to let go. I’ve found that it’s extremely hard to carve out this time every week, but by and large I try to manage to this schedule and I find I’m much more focused on thinking about where the business is going, fire fighting when I have to without cancelling meetings, and letting my management team do what they do best without me hand-holding folks or micro-managing. Try it for a few months.

11 minute rule when I procrastinate.
I tend to procrastinate on large projects, big thinking, or something I just don’t find as shiny. I’m not one of those folks who can do a set routine of to-do’s one after the other. I’m often juggling multiple thoughts/tasks at the same time, but when I need to focus and start on something big, I try and close all distractions (email, phone, chat, etc.) and allocate myself 11 minutes to start the project/brainstorm. I often find that if I can’t get into the groove within 11 minutes,  I really don’t have enough information to tackle the problem at that time, or I’m just not ready to take the project on. So, if I’m not feeling it after 11 minutes, I stop and jump into something else so I don’t waste time and can gain momentum elsewhere. I’ll come back at another time, possibly with more information and try the 11 minutes again, and hopefully the next thing I know, it’s 3 hours later and I’ve come up with something I’m proud of. I find 11 minutes is enough time to start thinking about something to determine if you can do it or not. Try it the next time you are procrastinating or need to tackle a large project.

One-to-one’s with your people. It’s about them, not you.
1:1’s shouldn’t just be about dept./project status, and they’re certainly not about you. I believe in the importance of consistent 1:1’s in driving trust, dialog, empathy, performance/coaching, organizational alignment, and understanding the pulse (positive or negative) of the organization and individual manager. I tend to structure my 1;1’s every two weeks for 45 minutes, but adapt this to a higher or lower weekly frequency based on the needs of the person I’m having the meetings with. Each person is different and therefore the style of the meetings vary from casual to structured based on their personality and/or how they like to prepare for this time. Again, it’s not about how you want a meeting to be structured, it’s about their time and getting the most of of them. From a logistics stand-point, I concentrate my 1-1’s all on one day or two if needed (normally Wednesday and Thursday); each meeting 45 minutes with a 15 minute break before the next meeting. By concentrating these meetings on the same day, I am able to better prepare my mind for the conversations as opposed to shifting from this type of thinking to another, as I would if I was to break up the meetings over the week. It’s rare I ever have my laptop open (unless I need to reference something) or my cell phone so I can focus my attention on the person and the topics discussed. To prepare, I create a place holder in my notebook for each 1-1 and during the two weeks I always jot down observations I want to weave into the conversation; at least one new idea/approach that will challenge the person. I find that if I don’t put things into my notebook over time, it’s hard to have a meaningful conversation and/or I’ll just be reacting to the moment in time of the 1-1. Lastly, during the meeting, I tend to let the person lead the conversation first based on the topics they want to cover and act as a coach where I can. But again this can vary based on the individuals style. 1-1’s are critical when building a performance management team and are even more important when growing and inspiring your people. Take it seriously and put in the effort- it will pay off.

Check your email 5 times a day.
Constant distractions from email and/or chat can and will break your focus and efficiency. I know the temptation of constantly checking emails, feeling you need to know what’s going on in real time, but the reality is that you are only slowing yourself down and being reactional to the message. My routine is to check emails at set periods in the day, respond to what needs my immediate attention, and flag other messages that I need to think about before responding. I typically set myself 30 minutes to blitz through email and respond, then turn it off and focus on other projects, meetings, etc. so my typical cadence is to check and respond at 9am, 11am, 2pm, 5pm and 9pm. If someone has something urgent they can always text me, and I certainly never look at it in meetings unless we are fire fighting a major issue. Try to turn off outlook/gmail and message notifications for a few hours a day and see if it helps your focus overall.

Break the routine, change your environment and unplug
I find that I can get into a repetitive mode with routine 1-1’s, meetings, status reviews, the environment in which I think, etc. This repetitive routine often stifles new thinking or you stop paying as much attention to the conversation as it’s a repetitive pattern. To break this up, I’ve found that simply changing the environment breaks the routine and can sometimes help you and others to think/communicate in different ways. I sit at a workstation with the troops (I prefer to have a pulse on the ground and not secluded in an office), but have a room I use for meetings called the “Living Room”, it’s a relaxed environment that’s good for conversation and brainstorming, but even that environment can become repetitive. So, as an example, for 1-1’s I’ll often change the environment by going to breakfast/lunch/drinks, or simply go for a walk with the person; it’s surprising how a conversation while you walk can disarm any nervous energy and often you draw out what someone is really thinking and/or wanting. Lastly, unplugging for shorts and long periods (see my thoughts on sabbaticals) can help slow your mind, esspeically in the digital/social environment that’s conducive to multi-tasking.

I hope these tips help and would love any comments on what works for you so I can continue to learn and evolve.

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