Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Leadership: What Really Matters

Managers reputedly run the business, but an honest assessment would in many cases conclude that the business runs them. The sense of being overwhelmed permeates our firms, at all levels. There's too much work to do and too little time to do it. Important matters get neglected. Urgent matters drive the agenda.

This is where technology was supposed to help. But many purported "labor-saving" devices have only created more labor. More forms to fill out, more data to track, more information to sort through, more requests for our attention. No wonder that a British study found that distractions from communication technologies (email, phone, Blackberries, etc.) can lower workers' IQ scores more than smoking marijuana.

And who's claiming that we communicate better now than we used to?

What we need more than technology is strong leadership. Leaders who will cut through the clutter and marshal limited resources for what really matters. Simplicity is the emerging success strategy. Complexity characterizes the average workplace, and it exacts a steep cost--in strategic, financial, and personal terms.

Unfortunately, most who serve in supposed leadership roles today only increase the complexity. When was the last time a new policy, operating procedure, company initiative, or strategic plan made things easier for employees? Don't such products of "leadership" usually just add to your to-do list, extend the time required to get something done, increase the stress levels, and rob some of the enjoyment from your work?

So let me suggest we rethink the leader's priorities. Let's strip down the role to its essence. Perhaps what follows is an oversimplification of what's needed. But I'm convinced if leaders concentrated on these few things, business results--both tangible and intangible--would remarkably improve. Here are what I consider the fundamental responsibilities of a company leader:

Maximize the focus of your attention. By "your" I'm referring to both you the leader and whatever group of people you are leading. The key principles at work here are (1) we can only mentally process a limited amount of information at a time and (2) thus should try to concentrate that limited mental energy on what matters most.

Several years ago, the conventional scientific wisdom was that we could only retain 5-9 items in our short-term memory. Turns out that was probably overly optimistic. More recent research in the field of neuroscience has concluded that the actual number is closer to 4. So how many work-related items do you try to carry around in your brain each day?

The fact is that most people are dealing with information overload at work. What are the ramifications? Well, studies indicate that overload negatively impacts decision making, problem solving, productivity, creativity, and quality. Any of those activities important to your business? Furthermore, overload has been linked to a host of physiological maladies as well, from elevated stress to sleep loss.

Another related problem in our workplaces is the tendency to be driven by urgency rather than importance. Much of our work, of course, is both urgent and important--meeting a client deadline, for example. But the addictive lure of urgency also causes us to spend large amounts of precious time doing things that are not all that important, but need to be done today! That means that important (often strategic) but nonurgent matters are not given the attention they deserve.

Effective leaders help their organizations focus on what's important. They simplify. They assign limited mental energy and other resources to the things that will most contribute to success. Covey found that a fundamental difference between high-performing and average organizations is how much time they shifted from urgent, nonimportant activities to nonurgent, important ones. That's not done without strong leadership.

Maximize the productivity of your time. This recommendation obviously goes hand-in-hand with the first one. Effective time management involves spending more of your time on the things that matter. In my experience, misused and misallocated time is prevalent in A/E firms. Perhaps that's even more problematic since we sell our services (at least traditionally) in hourly increments. It's akin to selling bottled drinks with the bottles less than full.

So where does the time go? Inefficient work processes consume large amounts of it. Inadequate project planning, poor communication, excessive interruptions, unnecessary rework, and burdensome systems all contribute to the time waste. The larger problem is that firm leaders rarely consider this a priority issue. We're talking about profligate spending of our most precious resource. That would seem to warrant a leader's attention.

There are many ways to improve organizational time usage, but let me focus here on two. The first involves the leader's use of his or her own time. I believe leaders have a responsibility to multiply their impact through helping others increase their productivity and effectiveness. That's what I call the Time Investment Principle. Too many in leadership roles neglect spending the time they should helping others maximize their time.

The second opportunity I would point to is making more effective use of nonbillable time. Most firms do a poor job of allocating and managing this critical resource. Nonbillable time is the reserve that fuels all kinds of strategic initiatives and operational improvements. It's the space in which we generate new business, certainly a crucial activity these days. But unfortunately, many firms conduct these important tasks with leftover time.

Strong leaders recognize that nothing gets done without time being spent. And important things don't get done when too little time is devoted to them.

Maximize the potential of your people. According to research by Gallup and others, only about 30% of the workforce in this country gives discretionary effort. That's effort beyond the minimum required. I presume that number is higher in the average A/E firm. But how much higher? Fifty percent?

Now think about that. If half the employees in your firm are giving less than discretionary effort, that's an enormous amount of potential going to waste. How much could your firm's performance improve if you could tap into another 10-20% of that potential? That's another area where good leaders multiply their impact.

But many firms in our business just don't get it. They think that the way to improve performance is to step up the pressure, demand accountability, track the numbers more closely, and perhaps even make threats. Those tactics can boost results in short spurts, but never over the long run.

Here's why: Discretionary effort is a gift from the employee to the firm. It's given voluntarily, not under compulsion. The employee goes beyond the minimum because he or she wants to. The heavy-handed tactics listed above only reinforce that the employees have to. That never produces discretionary effort, only what I call compliant effort--the minimum required to keep the job or avoid criticism.

Great leaders leverage their strengths to multiply their impact through others. They motivate employees to willingly give their best. They focus limited mental energy on what matters most. They carefully allocate and manage time for its highest use. Do these three things and see if your firm's or group's performance doesn't soar. It's the simpler formula for more profound results.

1 comment:

  1. Your point about leaders multiplying their effectivness by helping others use their time effectively is a good one. I'm distributing this to all of our managers.