Thursday, July 8, 2021

As a Leader, How Are You Investing Your Time Helping Others Succeed?

How do you define the success of a leader? Individual accomplishments are certainly
important, but shouldn't team performance be the primary measure? Indeed, leaders have a special opportunity to multiply their impact through the efforts of those they lead. Yet many unfortunately focus far more attention on their own efforts than those of the people under their charge.

Often, this misplaced emphasis is actively, if inadvertently, promoted by the firms that employ these leaders. For example, I've worked with several A/E firms that expect senior leaders to maintain high personal chargeability rates. These leaders are often commended for their heavy project involvement even as their business unit, office, or department languishes from their inattention.

I once was participating in a monthly managers call for a midsized engineering firm when the president began criticizing one of the branch managers for his low personal chargeability. "Wait a minute," I interrupted, "John's office has the highest utilization in the company, eight points over their budgeted goal. What difference does his utilization make?" After a prolonged pause, the president admitted he was focusing on the wrong thing.

Knowing John's tendencies as a leader, I suspected his office was outperforming the others in large part because of his lower utilization, or more specifically, how he spent time helping his people succeed. His example illustrates one of my most valued pieces of leadership advice—what I call the Time Investment Principle.

The essence of the Time Investment Principle is that leaders multiply their impact on the organization by investing time helping others be more productive and effective (see the diagram below). As a leader, if you spend your time simply "doing the work," your impact is measured only by your individual contribution. If, on the other hand, you divert time from doing the work to helping others do their part more effectively, your impact is multiplied.

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So how could you better apply the Time Investment Principle as a leader? Here are a few suggestions:

Appropriately distribute work assignments between yourself and your team. I know senior leaders who busy themselves largely with routine project work that could be delegated to junior staff. Clearly, they would be better served to unload much of that work so they could devote more time to being an effective leader—including boosting their team's capability to perform the work. What if the project work you do is highly specialized and not easily delegated? Well, perhaps you don't have the time available to serve as a real leader (there is a certain time commitment required!). Or maybe your firm needs to hire someone who can share part of that workload.

Dedicate a specific portion of your time to invest in your team. Your role as an engaged leader helping others succeed is too important to consign to leftover time. As with project work, you should determine how much time is needed to effectively lead your team and then budget and schedule it. Treat it you would project time. If there's a conflict, don't just drop it, reschedule it! And beware of overloading your calendar with tasks that are less important than your leadership responsibilities or that could be performed by others.

Start your day by helping others prepare for theirs. When I was serving in various regional and corporate leadership roles, my office was a snare. Go in there and I found myself easily entrapped by the lure of my task list, paperwork, emails, voicemails, inbox, and incessant interruptions. Sound familiar? What I learned was that one of the best ways to assure I spent time investing in others was to do so at the start of each day—before I stepped into my office. I would compile a list of people to talk to the day before, then the following morning spend a little time helping them get ready to make the most of their day.

Commit to coaching and mentoring others. Some people need a little guidance, others need more hands-on instruction and encouragement. Those of us who are sports fans recognize the benefits of good coaching, but rarely consider such an approach as leaders in our respective firms. But coaching holds tremendous potential for improving performance both on the field and in the office. Whereas coaching is more real-time, on-the-job with a performance focus, mentoring fills the need for more offline, career-oriented counseling.

Measure your success through the growth of others. An important leadership function is helping others grow and improve. This not only enables you to get the organizational results you need in the short term, but to build capability for sustained success. As a leader, your performance metrics should be largely centered on what your team accomplishes. The usual lagging financial metrics are useful, but I'd recommend adding some leading indicators such as specific behaviors, measurable improvements, and intermediate milestones. Of course, use these to celebrate success with your team.

My description of the Time Investment Principle may seem, well, a little too time intensive for some. But that's not usually the case. You should allocate your time for others in proportion to the dynamics of your particular leadership role. That includes determining what time investments in which people would likely yield the greatest benefits to the team's performance, and how much time you can reasonably devote (after optimizing the distribution of work assignments).

The main point is that leaders at all levels need to be wise in how they allocate their time, being careful to reserve adequate time to invest in enabling their team to succeed. Like any investment, you have to give up some now (in this case, your time) to reap a substantial return down the road (that is, increased future capability and productivity). But in my experience, you don't have to wait long for some ROI to be realized. Usually, the benefits start becoming evident within only a few weeks. It's worth the investment!


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