I am spending more time coaching executives than I ever have, and in doing so, I have gained clarity in terms of near-universal behaviors that will turn things around very quickly for most. Read on if you:
- complete your tasks on time and in full, only to realize that this didn’t move the needle; or simply find yourself making commitments and missing expectations.
- feel like you are running out of steam and that the road ahead is too steep; or find you are exhausted at the end of every day and yet your stakeholders are never satisfied
I am seeing these 2 themes recur in every high-growth business, and while I can’t solve them in a document, I can guide you to the actions that need to be taken.
1. Doing the wrong things or nothing at all
What I have learned is that this occurs for two primary reasons (There are many possibilities, but here is what I see most):
- Instant gratification/ease of accomplishment: Do you find yourself making lists of easily accomplished tasks you can talk yourself into needing to happen? Many people struggle with impulse control and an inability to delay gratification, so they default to getting the reward of doing simple, sometimes enjoyable things and then self-justifying it [Have you found yourself responding to emails/Slack messages to get to ‘inbox zero’ instead of working on that report/spreadsheet you owe someone?]This also happens in response to a sense of overwhelm. Perhaps you have had periods of your life when you feel completely out of control – Maybe you lost your job and rather than doing the hard work of job-hunting you indulged in ‘proclasticleaning’ (A fun word I learned, which represents the times we clean the house and convince ourselves it is the most important thing we could be doing).
- Incorrect strategies/priorities: When you don’t look up from the road and look to ensure you are heading in the right direction. Marketers and salespeople fall prey to this all the time – For example, I have seen money spent on conferences and capturing ‘leads’ (“Let me scan your badge“) when, in fact, the company has an ideal customer profile that never attended these conferences.I know salespeople who invest hours posting and responding on Linkedin every day when their buying persona doesn’t spend ANY time on Linkedin.
For both of the situations above, it comes down to getting an accountability buddy who knows what is effective and will hold you accountable for doing it. Let me paint you a picture – In both examples above, imagine you are going to the gym to reduce the size of your waist.
a) You are only going 2 days a week instead of 5, because, “I had to work late today, so couldn’t get to the gym – I really couldn’t get out of it.”
b) You were doing zero cardio and following the advice of a buddy who said you just need to do as many sit-ups as you can daily to build those abs and shrink the waist.
The answer to the waist solution will be obvious to you, so here is how you translate it to work:
Get a mentor: This can be your direct leader or it could be someone outside, but they have to have done your job before and be able to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Some of the best mentors can be peers or very recently promoted folks – The reason is that their knowledge is current.
[Sidenote: Traditional coaching doesn’t necessarily work here – If you truly don’t know that the most effective waist reduction strategy is diet, followed by cardio, then asking you good questions won’t help – You need a prescriptive mentor who will tell you what you need to do (Like a sports coach does).]
Get an accountability buddy:Marshall Goldsmith (Executive coach to world leaders and CEOs of Fortune 50 companies) has someone call him EVERY day to ask him accountability questions, because as he puts it, he isn’t brave enough to consistently take the actions by himself.
There is a relatively small proportion of the population who will train at their fullest capacity by themselves, which is why ‘Personal trainer’ is a profession. In lieu of a trainer, you can just commit to meeting your buddy at the gym and you will do it not to let them down. Do this professionally – In my world I have a key direct report with whom I exchange weekly commitments and daily questions. Every morning at 7:45am we have a call and ask each other the daily questions, and weekly we review the priorities.
Don’t try to do this alone – I get up 6 days a week at 4:45am and go to the gym or run by myself,and yet, I don’t trust myself to have the discipline to do what should be done during the work day.
2. Running out of time/energy
I have fallen victim to this myself several times during my career – Perhaps you feel like your job is like building sandcastles and twice a day the tide washes them away. Your work is impossible to complete, or you feel you have no impact.
I hear this sentiment far too often, and it has wide-reaching effects on mental health and personal relationships. Frustratingly, you may find that after burning the candle at both ends, your stakeholders are annoyed that you are not delivering what they need.
Agree the ‘Big rocks’: Per the image below, we can only fit so many ‘rocks’ in the jar and it is important that you align with your stakeholders on what the ‘must-have’ rocks are. In the world of revenue it is very hard to manage because everyone wants this month’s number, but they also want the next FY plan and the new hires selected, and… and…
There is a principle from product management (and I am simplifying the art) that I encourage you to use as a framework for discussing priorities with your stakeholders:
1) Effort vs. Impact: The first thing you need is a strategic framework like OKRs or V2MOM or similar – IE What are the goals we are aligning to, and then you can break it down to projects or simply tasks.
I like a 2X2 matrix and list all the things I could be doing and get an agreement on what is essential. The thing product managers include here is a unit measure of days to complete each thing. So you can do one really big thing, or three small things in a period…. The key thing is to agree what you will get done. This is what I do every week with my colleague. We decide what can fit into the working week and prioritize them (Some things are ongoing efforts).
2) Time block your calendar and include breaks: I have written previously about how to improve resilience in the past so I won’t get into mindfulness etc, but here is something I ALWAYS do with my exec coaching clients:
“Screen share and show me your calendar for the past 2 weeks.”
What would I see if I looked at yours? If you are running out of time/energy and feeling overwhelmed, then I can predict one of two things (or both) are true:
- Your calendar has very few gaps in it (Typically for managers). You are back to back with calls and meetings and have no time to get “work” done.
- Your calendar has significant gaps in it, and still, your days are packed, but it is different almost every week
The simple (and yet not commonly followed) practice for fixing this is time-blocking your calendar for the big rocks! If you are in hiring mode, it means that you block chunks of days that your recruiter can use for interviews.
If you are someone who sells, or produces content, or writes code, then you block time to do the work. I look at the calendar of salespeople on a Monday morning at 8am – I see 2 prospect meetings for the week instead of 8 and large swathes of blank space – You know what goes in there? The business version of ‘procrasticleaning’ – Inbox zero, Slack messages, ‘Research’ etc.
Your action items:
- Ensure you know what the ‘big rocks’ are by verifying with your stakeholders and ensuring alignment with the plan (that may just be your direct boss).
- Get a mentor to ensure you are working on the right things (Could be your boss).
- Get an accountability buddy who you will listen to and have the daily 5-minute call. Be honest – You are smart, you will talk yourself out of doing things while you get onto the ‘urgent’ inbox cleaning. This should not be your boss (Because of the temptation not to be transparent).
- Set weekly priorities with your buddy and time block your calendar to reflect that. Each week, show your buddy your calendar for the week prior and be thoughtful in reflecting on how well it was spent and what should be different this week.