Prof David Pendleton, Professor in Leadership
How many hours do you work in a typical week? Probably too many. Your family would probably like to see you more. Your friends likewise. You may well need to take more exercise, to read around your subject or just for interest, to do those jobs at home that have been on the back burner for too long, to play with your children, or to walk the dog more regularly in the week. The list is potentially long. However, it isn’t just about making time for things outside of work. It’s about how to make sure we are focusing on the right things while at work
But how will you ever find the time for these other things when work has the capacity to devour your time and gorges on it regularly?
This is a conversation I have had countless times in the course of a long career in consultancy and now have in the context of leadership development activities at the Business School. It is a universal and recurring problem but not insoluble. In this context, I have been working with a simple audit that I would like to share with you here:
Look at your schedule for your busiest recent week, or even just for last week. Allocate each activity to one of five categories, as follows:
A. This is an activity that only I could do.
B. This is an activity that somebody else could do now.
C. This is an activity that someone else could do if I enabled them to do it.
D. This is an activity that nobody should do.
E. This is an activity that I have no choice but to do.
Let me start with B.
Meetings can be attended by deputies if you appoint them. A few of your team members may welcome the opportunity to step up. We worry that we should be in a meeting where our peers are, even when we are only there for the knowledge we bring and which other team members also have. These activities can be delegated if we simply arrange for the delegation to happen, whether temporary or permanent.
Activities create a developmental challenge for us. Enabling another to do something may involve training, experience building or further education. Or it may be as simple as giving permission with a briefing. It might involve getting a team member to shadow you for a session or two. But, once you have decided that someone else could undertake an activity, you will quickly identify how that enablement and development should happen.
Activities are more common than you might imagine. Once a meeting or a regular task has been created, they tend to cling to life. Some meetings achieve so little that they are not worth the investment of time and effort to keep them going. Some papers and reports are seldom read and few would notice if they were permanently canned. If you are unsure about this, try delaying sending that report out and see who complains or even try sending it only on request and see how soon the requests dry up. All it would need is a bold decision to terminate that activity.
Some activities, by contrast, have to be done. These are E activities but don’t allocate too many activities to this category. The real candidates here are those required by law or professional standards bodies. Trustees have to undertake certain activities at the request (insistence) of the Charity Commission. Company law requires that some reports are compiled and filed. Finance functions must prepare and publish certain reports and accounts. Publicly listed companies have to file or publish information of various kinds. These are compulsory, though the person preparing these documents may be negotiable. A boss may insist that you do a specified task or attend a meeting and employment law may deem this to be ‘a reasonable request of management’. But pick the right time and muster the right argument and evidence, and who knows what you may be able to jettison or shift to someone else more appropriate.
Which brings me to A activities
These are the activities that only you can do. These are also the activities that you should focus on. This is where you really add most value. This is the kernel of your role. If you could remove or reduce the other activities, there would be more space for these.
Now, do two more things
First, total up the time you have spent in each type of activity. What does that suggest? Are you doing too much or too much of the wrong things? After a period of reflection, it may be smart to devise an action plan to shift the balance towards those A activities that only you can do. Until, of course, you figure out how to enable others to do these also.
Second, compile a list of those tasks that you know you need to do but never seem to have the time or opportunity to undertake. Ensure that these are also A activities that only you can do. You will also make the space for these tasks by reducing those in categories B to E.
If this audit seems scary because you are concerned not to make yourself redundant, let me share with you a concluding true story about my friend Mark (not his real name). I first met Mark when he was middle level manager in a FTSE 100 company I had been asked to join temporarily as a member of the top team.
I had undertaken an audit of the talent we had available at this crucial middle level. Mark was one of the two most able managers I found. He was clear-thinking and bold in his managerial and leadership styles. What impressed me most was when he described his role as enabling others which he took to extraordinary levels. In fact, he told me that, whenever he was given a new role, he did everything he could to make himself redundant in it as fast as possible. And the outcome was simple: within ten years he was running the company as CEO.
Don’t let your diary push you around. Do the right things. Take back control.