How Do You Decide Where to Spend Your Time?

It’s one of the most common challenges we work with leaders on. What should I be spending my time on? What are the most important activities for me? And, your default impulse on these questions may very well be wrong. If you don’t intentionally choose what to focus on, you will continually be reactive and likely not addressing the most important demands of your role. Leaders often choose their focus based on the following criteria:


What I have always focused on

We know from decades of research on management “derailment” that, as a manager moves up in the organization, strengths can become weaknesses. People who are really good at problem-solving often get rewarded with promotion – and then continue to parachute in to solve their reports’ problems because that’s what they’ve always been good at and rewarded for. Problem is, that doesn’t develop others’ capabilities to solve those complex problems.

How have your historical strengths become potential limits?


What I enjoy focusing on

Managers often prioritize the aspects of their role that they enjoy the most. You enjoy working with your high-potential reports or people with whom you have a smooth working relationship, and you don’t enjoy working with your reports who have performance issues or those with whom you’ve had conflicts. So you focus on the satisfying relationships. Problem is, accomplishing your objectives may require you to reach out and engage those with whom you have conflicting priorities or goals, and the performance gaps of those you’re avoiding may be having big consequences.

Are you avoiding important aspects of your role that you don’t enjoy or don’t feel comfortable with?


What important others want me to focus on

If you have multiple stakeholders, they inevitably will have priorities that conflict with one another’s and with any ideas you have about what should be prioritized. If you focus on being responsive to stakeholders’ priorities, you will soon feel like a tennis ball being batted back and forth.

Are you stuck between your stakeholders’ conflicting priorities and viewpoints about what you should be doing?


What I want to focus on, regardless of others’ priorities

Conversely to the last point, if you are locking yourself in a room and deciding priorities on your own, those priorities will likely be based on limited information and limited perspective. Including stakeholders doesn’t mean caving in to them, it just means listening to them and determining in what ways their input might be valid for you.

Are you including stakeholders sufficiently in your determination of what’s important?


Shifting your focus as you move into broader leadership roles generally falls into a few areas.


Manage expectations instead of problems.

If you manage problems, you will always need to dive down into each situation. Focusing on expectation management enables you to build people’s independent capability to manage the problems themselves.


Coach instead of fix.

Every time you have to dive in, treat that episode as a “coachable moment.” How can you leave that situation having left some residual capability in the person?


Always look for strategic implications of tactical issues.

Even when you’re in the weeds, there potentially are broader implications of what’s happening. Is this episode an instance of a more widespread pattern that needs to be addressed? Is this the first sign of a potential industry change that needs to be monitored?


Decide what you will leave undone and be okay with it.

Being focused on the important things means knowing what you will not do, actively choosing to leave those things undone, and accepting the consequences. This is painful for many leaders. But, in the end, choice is the most important tool you have as a leader.


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