Priority Overload

Sure, I get there should only be ONE #1 Priority. And yet…

… from the Ask An Expert forum at the Mentor’s Guild


Question: How to prioritize when everything is Top Priority?

“After a long corporate career, I have moved to a smaller organization in my industry. I work on several simultaneous projects and report to the CEO. I have fewer staff and more responsibilities, which I was expecting. However, I am quite surprised by a culture where everything seems to be Top Priority…all the time. What’s the best way for me to bring this up? I want to understand if this is a passing phase or the organization’s culture.”

My Answer:

Your situation is not atypical for those moving from larger to smaller organizations. Therefore, let me take a slightly different approach than my colleagues have and encourage you to look at what improvements YOU can make in how you juggle priorities.

Some suggestions for becoming a much better juggler:

• Accept that any frustration or productivity loss you’re experiencing when shifting between priorities is self-imposed.

• Refuse to grouse about how inconvenient and disruptive the sudden shifts are — your job doesn’t allow for the luxury of self-pity. Oh well. When priorities are plentiful, know that the effective utilization of your time is what’s really #1. Your time is a scarce resource; use it more wisely and powerfully. (Instead of taking 60 minutes for a meeting; finish in 45; instead of asking 5-7 questions to get what you need, ask 2 or 3; instead of focusing on activities, focus on desired outcomes; etc.)

• Envision your job less linearly — more like a program manager responsible for multiple projects (all at once) rather than a project manger responsible for only one (at a time).

• Get significantly better at shifting more seamlessly between priorities by studying what those who do it better than you are doing that you are not. Study, too, what they are not doing that you are. Then take those best practices and make them your own.

• Shift from a priority-based focus to a time-based focus, meaning, start with a time interval (say 15 minutes), determine what you can do to move this priority meaningfully forward within that time frame, and do that. Then repeat the process for the next time interval/priority, etc. Challenge yourself to achieve increasingly meaningful outcomes in decreasing amounts of time.

Is it easy? No. Is it important? Absolutely. Be proud that you get to report directly to the CEO, that your job is to keep things moving for him/her and the company, and that this quicker tempo is something you’re working to master.


1 Source: My post in the Mentor’s Guild Ask an Expert forum.

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Corporate Culture Sub-Optimization

My latest response to a question posed in the Mentor’s Guild Ask an Expert forum:

I admit to having used such a suboptimization strategy, back in the day, when I was promoted to run a department that was both negatively viewed and non-core to the business.

Although the larger company culture was very “high-visibility” and “political,” I asked my staff to adopt a “let’s be so good that no one notices” mantra so we could work “under the radar” on some basic improvements and lessen the unwanted attention — which they embraced because they were tired of all the blame.

As routine processes became increasingly consistent, I added core-business elements to our focus:

  • Empowering low level employees to ask internal customers for the “business justification” of their requests significantly reduce our workload — and costs — and improved staff’s morale and business-like focus.
  • I made each employee responsible for providing feedback from internal and external customers about new product and service ideas….and then taught those employees how to write (and present up the chain) cogent, compelling business cases for the good ones.
  • In our annual budget process, I insisted that my managers differentiate between what we wanted and what we truly needed, simplifying my upstream negotiations, and greatly facilitating additional funding requests throughout the year.
  • When a 10% company-wide budget reduction was requested, we demonstrated how we could better improve the company’s bottom line by INCREASING our spending — and got approval to do so.
  • I also regularly invited senior leaders, including the president, to attend my staff meetings, giving us great insight into their priorities, concerns, and upcoming initiatives — and how best we might support them.

So, ironically, it was through suboptimization that we became more integrated into the core business than hoped for. And while, admittedly, this is more anecdotal than Best Practices, sometimes it just is what it is!

Happy to talk  more with you if it would help.

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A Portfolio of Mentors


My latest response to a question posed in the Mentor’s Guild their Ask an Expert forum:

Their Question: We are national telecom organization with a new mentorship program aimed to develop our new executive leaders from within the organization. We have identified more than 20 mid-level managers from various functions who are eligible for the program, 4 of them are women. We intend to increase this ratio in coming years, but our immediate problem is finding the right mentors for the women mentees. There are very experienced women professionals in the organizations, but most lack the organizational clout to really push for their career advancement in the key discussions. Assigning male senior executives, as mentors, may present complexities of its own. Our current culture is a definite “work hard-play hard” which at senior levels extends to after office networking events, weekend events with customers, frequent travel, etc. It is one thing to participate in these after a promotion… but at this stage it might scare away women with young kids at home. Thanks for your suggestions.

My Answer: I wholeheartedly encourage you to modernize your mentor matching methodologies — for women AND men. Gone are the days where just one mentor is enough. What your up-and-coming leaders need is an entire PORTFOLIO of mentors. (I’ve been coaching/mentoring, professionally, for 14 years, but it’s a lesson I learned beforehand, back when  I  was vice president of telecommunications for a futures/options exchange.) Consider:

  • advocacy – which is the real key to upward mobility – requires more than just one boss and one mentor standing up for you
  • “single-sourcing” may make sense as a telecom marketing strategy, but it does not when developing your future leaders
  • even if one mentor was an expert in everything, there is power and perspective in getting multiple points of view

More at: Creating a Portfolio of Mentors »

P.S. You might also want to encourage the “boys” to consider what your up-and-coming women leaders have to recommend vis-a-vis your “work hard-play hard” culture. They may have some suggestions that not only help with work/life balance thing, but better differentiates your company with your clients and prospects, as well.

I’m happy to further the conversation with you – or your mentors and mentees – directly.  Call or email at your convenience.

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Feeling Undervalued


My latest response to a question posed in the Mentor’s Guild their Ask an Expert forum:

Their Question: As a team of six managers, we form the core of the research department in an consumer products company. My boss is a long-serving, friendly and very competent head of the department. He is also an idealist. So much so that many of our initiatives are credited to other divisions (with greater political savvy) in the wider organization. We have brought this up in our meetings, but our manager believes “true merit” sooner or later rises to the top. Maybe so. Problem is, it leaves the rest of us feeling undervalued.

My Answer: As your boss suggests, “true merit” sooner or later DOES rise to the top — except, of course, when it does not!

Therein lies the rub.

Unmet needs — especially like “feeling undervalued” — can cause terrible distraction in the workplace. Even worse, it can negatively affect the work you do as you (inadvertently, but likely) shift your attention from doing exemplary work to getting more recognition regardless of the quality of work you do.

So know this: the workplace is NOT the place to try to get your unmet needs met. The point of one’s job is to do the job, not try to use it to fulfill a personal need for greater recognition, or some such. Pardon the harshness, but if you want to be adored, get a puppy!

Then consider this: What, specifically, do you want to hear from whom about the value you (and the other managers) are providing to the larger organization?

  • Is it a pat-on-the-back from the boss? A special recognition dinner hosted by your boss’ boss? Something in between? What?
  • Is it a note in your personnel file? A front-page story in the company’s newsletter extolling  your amazing contributions to the cause? Something in between? What?
  • Is it some extra comp time? A seat on a high-level/high-visibility task force? Something in between? What?

Get as specific and granular about it as you can — and then work to achieve that goal as creatively and diligently and professionally as you would any other issue you face.

But whatever you do, don’t get all needy and whiny about it! That’s just bad form. (Not that I’m saying you or the others ARE getting all needy and whiny about it, but IF you are, think: Puppies, ha-ha!)

Let me know if you’d like to talk through some of the follow-up questions you, no doubt, have.

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Managing Older Employees

As a founding member of the Mentors Guild, I help individuals and businesses maximize their performance. Here’s my latest response to a question posed in their Ask an Expert forum:

Their Question: My leadership style is casual, friendly and collaborative. One big hurdle — I have to manage a SME (subject matter expert) senior engineer (nearing retirement age) who is also a likely contender to the position. It is an exciting and intimidating opportunity.  Appreciate your advice.

My Answer: I’ve faced similar circumstances in my own career. Great opportunities to test whether we’re as good as we think we are!

What worked for me was to adopt a full-on “servant leader” approach to my older-than-me direct reports, asking them:

  • “Tell me how you want to be managed?”
  • “What type of support do you want…or not want…from me?”
  • “Do you prefer me to ask you for updates or you to provide your updates to proactively?”

Based on what they say, negotiate, as needed:

  • “Sure, I can check in with you no more than once/month, but then you need to check in with me every Thursday at 2pm because if I don’t know what you’re working on I’m likely to make some pretty lousy decisions on your behalf.”
  • “Oh, Thursdays won’t work? Okay, then when before that would?”
  • “I understand you think you could do my job better than me, and quite possibly you can, but what I want to know is what would demonstrate otherwise to you? Let’s talk about what make me the best boss you’ve ever had and see if I can rise to the challenge?”

A lot of this has to do with your poise; your grace under fire, as it were. So keep in mind that your boss picked you, no doubt, because s/he thought you were capable enough to handle the challenge. Proving him/her right about that will serve you, your boss, and your direct reports well.

Let me know if you’d like to talk through some of the follow-up questions you, no doubt, have.

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Mentors Guild Q&A

Earlier this year, I became a founding member of the Mentors Guild, an on-line service that helps individuals and businesses maximize their performance. One of the services they offer is a nifty Ask an Expert program.

From time to time, I’ll be posting some of the questions (and my answers) from there here at the LeadershipTraction blog. Like these:

Their Question: What recommendations do you have for HR when execs think they know it all because they’ve read a few HR books?

My Answer: If it were me, I’d read those exact same books, schedule some time with the exec, and have a series of pseudo-book-club-type conversations where you discuss the parts of the books that you both agree with, the parts that you both don’t, the parts where your opinions differ, and (most importantly) the parts that have particular applicability to what you call the ‘business of the business.’ Then you can check back in, on a regular basis, to insure the key points are kept top-of-mind.

Their Question: How does one develop an ability to “see the big-picture”?

My Answer: A good way to differentiate the “forest” from the “trees” is to think in terms of the precedence or implications of a decision or recommendation. “Trees” (more tactical decisions/recommendations) are typically one-and-done — good for the particular circumstance/situation, but not much more. “Forests” (more strategic decisions/recommendations) are more “one-and-some,” meaning they address both the current circumstance/situation AND future choices relevant to it or that may arise as a result of it.

To get a better feel for the difference, look at a decision one of your more strategic coworkers recently made. Consider its depth and breadth. Why THAT decision? What sort of precedence does it establish or work within? Buy them a cup of coffee and ask them about it, how they approached the matter, identified possible options, vetted those options, and ultimately came to a conclusion. Ask them to explain their thinking in as much detail as is helpful to you.

Now look at one of your more tree-like decisions and ask yourself the same questions. Compare and contrast the two and notice the differences in approach and methodology. Now ask another coworker. And another — until you start to recognize some patterns behind big-picture skills and how you can incorporate them into your own decision-making. Share what you’ve learned with your boss and get his/her input and insights, as well. Make better “big-picture” thinking a routine part of your 1-on-1 meetings.

Hope this helps get you started.

Their Question: How can I drive consensus in cross-functional projects?

My Answer: “While my experience in working relationship one-on-one is excellent, it becomes really difficult to manage conflicting priorities when the size of the team pushes 4 or so members.” Yes, welcome to the world of herding cats — and IT cats are the hardest to herd!

So let me suggest that you consider the level of support you NEED from each person on your key issues by using the following  continuum:

I need them to LET it happen » » » » » I need them to HELP it happen » » » » » I need them to MAKE it happen.

Then, using the same continuum, consider the level of support you CURRENTLY HAVE from each person on those key issues.

Less confident/practiced IT project managers tend to spend most of their time with the people who are already giving them as much, if not more, support than they need for a given issue and not enough time with the people from whom they need more support than they currently have.

You can substantively increase your impact and influence, without having to engage your executive sponsors in the minutiae, by focusing your attention on those who’s support you currently NEED > CURRENTLY HAVE. Then, the conversations with your executive sponsors can focus, instead, on more meaningful updates and progress reports and maximizing executive-level support and visibility for the initiatives under your charge.

I’m happy to talk through some ways the make this happen for you, if you’d like.

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