Slow Down To Do More: “Know your critical few priorities, and make sure they fit on one page.” with Michael Lipps and Chaya Weiner

Know your critical few priorities, and make sure they fit on one page. A wise mentor once told me, “Critical few means four or five, maybe six, never seven!” As CEO, I’ve tried to live by that mantra. If you find yourself with too many “critical few” priorities, you’ve been overtaken by what we call […]

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Know your critical few priorities, and make sure they fit on one page. A wise mentor once told me, “Critical few means four or five, maybe six, never seven!” As CEO, I’ve tried to live by that mantra. If you find yourself with too many “critical few” priorities, you’ve been overtaken by what we call the “trivial many,” which leads to sub-optimal execution. CEOs need to be highly disciplined to determine where they spend their time. Don’t take on too much, and you’ll find you get more of the stuff that really matters done. I carry my critical few priorities around with me every day on a single page. And I share it with anyone in my organization who’s interested in where I’m investing my time (and just as importantly, where I’m not).

As a part of my series about “” I had the pleasure to interview Michael Lipps, the CEO of insightsoftware, a global leader in ERP and EPM reporting solutions. Michael is also the former Chairman for the American Heart Association’s Triangle Heart Walk in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve been in the software industry my entire life. My career started in functional roles like marketing and product management and then pivoted into more operationally focused roles and ultimately led to my CEO tenure today.

My first job was at Intuit, the large financial software company that makes products everyone has heard of — like QuickBooks and TurboTax. It’s based in Silicon Valley, where I was born and raised. I was a kid from Oakland with a school teacher father and a “stay at home” mom. Ironically, I entered university hoping to go into advertising, mainly because I loved the 80’s TV show “Thirtysomething,” but I pivoted to marketing when I realized there were more entry level marketing jobs available. The economy in the early 90’s was terrible, and I remember our professors warning us of how competitive the job market was going to be, so I went with the basic law of numbers. In another stroke of luck, I ended up at Intuit because they were looking to fill a marketing role, and a good friend passed on the job and recommended they call me instead.

I’m so grateful for that twist of fate because Intuit has been incredibly successful at developing and cultivating leaders at many levels. It’s core to their culture and, because of this, I spent 14 years there. Starting out, I didn’t focus on being the smartest, but rather tried to build my reputation as a dependable “gets sh** done” guy, and one day I was called to the CEO’s office and told they wanted to put me through a Six Sigma leadership program to train me for more senior operational roles.

As a marketer, let’s just say I hated the sound of it, but because the CEO asked, what could I say? It turned out to be the most transformative role of my entire career. It completely reframed the way I think about and use data, the approach I use to manage businesses and even how I manage my personal life. I learned “everything is a process” whether you acknowledge it or not, and the beautiful thing about processes is they can always be improved!

After Intuit, I ran the software division at the legal technology company LexisNexis, and over the next eight years, my team and I built their software and technology center in Raleigh, North Carolina from 90 to over 600 people. That trajectory led me to where I am today, CEO of insightsoftware. Seven months ago, we embarked on a mission to acquire and integrate leading companies in the financial reporting space, and in a very short time we’ve created the market leader in financial reporting and analytics software for the enterprise resource planning (ERP) market. Today, we’re in high-growth mode — both organically and through acquisitions — on a global scale with 10 offices around the world. Needless to say, those Six Sigma skills have proven extremely useful.

According to a 2006 Pew Research Report report, 26% of women and 21% of men feel that they are “always rushed”. Has it always been this way? Can you give a few reasons regarding what you think causes this prevalent feeling of being rushed?

I do think people always feel rushed, and what springs to mind is the concept of “ruthless prioritization,” a phrase we use often at insightsoftware. Overall, I think this rushed feeling is due to the fact that people don’t treat their personal time — and where and how they spend it — as their single greatest individual resource.

In any business role, the more senior you become, the more strategic responsibility you have in your company. And the way you ultimately create value in an organization is through strategic initiatives versus tactical ones. But the dilemma is that the tactical issues never go away.

And so, leaders (myself included) are often guilty of falling into the trap of “heroic firefighting.” If I always find myself fighting the “fire of the day,” then I end up spending all of my time reacting to situations. And in a lot of organizations, you get praised for that pattern of behavior, but as a result, you never have enough time for the more critical strategic opportunities.

The more ruthless you are in clearly defining your critical few priorities and then being very disciplined in making sure you’re spending your time on these things, the less likely you are to feel rushed. I have a lot of highly competent, trusted people in my organization who are tasked with trying to solve those tactical problems. So, I try very hard not to fall into that heroic firefighting trap. I always ask myself, on a continuum of zero to 100 percent, how much time should I be spending strategically, and how much time am I actually spending strategically? And if those two things are out of alignment, then I have to go back to prioritizing exactly how I spend my time.

Based on your experience or research can you explain why being rushed can harm our productivity, health, and happiness?

When human beings are rushed or have too much on their plates, it makes us feel like we lose the ability to control our own time. Now you’re on the merry-go-round and it’s speeding up. This contributes to a sense of pressure, which in extreme cases creates symptoms that I imagine we’ve all experienced from time-to-time: a tightening in the chest, a throbbing in the head and the inability to think clearly. It’s easy to see how people struggle to prioritize in these situations, which negatively impacts their productivity. It’s almost like a form of mental paralysis and, if left unchecked, that feeling of being constantly overwhelmed can make us unhappy and start to damage our health.

On the flip side, can you give examples of how we can do more, and how our lives would improve if we could slow down?

I believe it’s critical that every day you make a concerted effort to carve out dedicated time to just think. Think about what our priorities are, think about how to best use our time for the day ahead and think about how we attack the things that really matter — in our job and our personal life. It’s amazing how a small amount of planning like this can be truly empowering by allowing us to take back ownership of our day, to control how we spend our time and ultimately allow us to strike the right balance between work, family and leisure activities. I think it’s this balance which is the essential element in helping us achieve happiness and to feel a sense of fulfilment with our lives.

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed. Can you share with our readers 6 strategies that you use to “slow down to do more”? Can you please give a story or example for each?

This is a topic that I’m really passionate about. It very closely aligns with a concept we were taught during my time training as a Six Sigma Black Belt at Intuit. We learned “go slow to go fast” as a core principle for how we could drive large-scale, impactful change by keeping things simple and focused. As I mentioned previously, it’s a management philosophy that still shapes how I manage myself and insightsoftware today. Usually with good intentions, people and organizations often fall into the same dangerous trap: inertia caused by overwhelming priorities. Taking on too much at one time has a number of sub-optimal effects on an organization, and the individual, that can be easily be avoided if you learn to “slow down to do more.”

As a CEO, I have several strategies that I rely on both at work and in my personal life that have helped me to be more successful in a sustainable way:

Make sure you build time into your calendar every day to think. That might sound funny, but critical, strategic thinking needs to be scheduled like any other executive priority. In fact, it should be the most valuable time of your day. Otherwise, each day’s transactional, tactical priorities can easily fill your calendar if you allow it. Before you know it, you’re going from meeting to meeting and suddenly it’s 7:30 p.m. and you’re exhausted. It’s about how you look ahead, how you connect executional dots and how you assess your performance for stakeholders, and more. If you’re attempting to squeeze that in between tactical problem-solving, you’re already in trouble. My assistant and I make it a pact to have at least one hour per day set aside for “strategic thinking,” and it’s usually the most productive part of my days.

Know your critical few priorities, and make sure they fit on one page. A wise mentor once told me, “Critical few means four or five, maybe six, never seven!” As CEO, I’ve tried to live by that mantra. If you find yourself with too many “critical few” priorities, you’ve been overtaken by what we call the “trivial many,” which leads to sub-optimal execution. CEOs need to be highly disciplined to determine where they spend their time. Don’t take on too much, and you’ll find you get more of the stuff that really matters done. I carry my critical few priorities around with me every day on a single page. And I share it with anyone in my organization who’s interested in where I’m investing my time (and just as importantly, where I’m not).

Build in quarterly offsite sessions with your executive team, and never sacrifice them. At insightsoftware, we’re faithful believers in Patrick Lencioni’s “Organizational Health” concept that he covers in his book, The Advantage. As such, one of my commitments to my executive team is that we will spend two to three days per quarter together, away from our teams, to rise above the day-to-day tactical fog and focus on the big picture. Too few organizations stay true to this concept. That “strategic time” is often forfeited to fight the fire of the week, and if that’s all your team does, the organization will ultimately reflect that and will become inefficient and ineffective. Slow down and commit to strategic time together to get more done. The week to week transactional overload of meetings will still be there when you get back, I promise!

Commit to “you” time, and be selfish about it. This one is hard, but it’s so important if you ultimately want to be a better executive, partner, parent or friend. While we all have our own ways of recharging our batteries, I’ve found that making sure I stay committed to quality “me” time is critical. That’s usually time spent exercising or reading. (My 2018 goal was my first triathlon!) Hitting the gym — even if for only 30 minutes a day — really clears my mind and makes me that much more productive when I reach the office.

Each week, try to fill your “bucket” with something you’re passionate about. You have to find the things that help your batteries “stay full.” For me, one of those things is time with my family. Our ritual is Sunday night dinners. We plan them as family. We shop together, cook together, eat together and then clean up together. It may sound like a simple thing, but the commitment we all make to each other to share our Sunday afternoon/evenings together, just the four of us with no distractions, is truly the best part of my week. Just writing this actually makes me smile, so can you imagine how it makes me feel when I hit the office Monday morning? I’m motivated and ready to tackle the week!

How do you define “mindfulness”? Can you give an example or story?

I view mindfulness as being very much related to the concept of emotional quotient, or EQ. I think leaders that have high EQs tend to be more thoughtful about others and how they think — their emotions, their feelings, and reading their faces and non-verbal cues. I spend a lot of time, probably more than I even realize, checking my own personal dashboard. So, for me, mindfulness is really about having the ability to be introspective and to look for those non-verbal cues in every interaction that you have so you truly understand the pulse of an organization and are not just relying on what people tell you.

Can you give examples of how people can integrate mindfulness into their everyday lives?

I’ve touched on this, but it certainly bears repeating. Mindfulness has to include that “thinking time.” Executives can’t afford to view it as a luxury. It’s a necessity. During those times that I build it into every single day on my calendar, it becomes as much about checking my own personal dashboard as it does about where I’m spending my time, and it helps provide a level of clarity that I can go out and operate more effectively in. It’s my time to clear the fog of everything that gets thrown at you daily as a CEO.

Do you have any mindfulness tools that you find most helpful at work?

Believe it or not, my favorite mindfulness tool is skip-level meetings with the front line employees in my business. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of believing your business looks a certain way from the Boardroom, but when you simply take the time to sit with people — customer support reps, salespeople, engineers — people who engage with our customers every day, it really helps me refocus on things that matter. Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, used to remind us that to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” you have to first be willing to remove your own. Having frequent, open-ended talks with my front line employees, where I do most of the listening, is my way of removing my shoes and getting in touch with the present.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to use mindfulness tools or practices

Everyone has their favorite business books, and there are so many great ones…Collins’ “Good to Great”, Duckworth’s “Grit”, and Ries’ “The Lean Startup” are three I love. That said, for my money, Patrick Lencioni’s series of business fables and books are number one for illustrating the power of mindfulness tools and practices. In “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” he shows just how critical basic concepts like trust and accountability are to building a successful team. In “Getting Naked,” he teaches the theory of vulnerability and how powerful the impact can be on organizations when their leaders are willing to display humility, selflessness and transparency. And in “The Advantage,” he dissects the concept of organizational health, and why constantly seeking to create and reinforce clarity is vital for leaders seeking to build successful cultures. Trust, vulnerability and clarity are three mindfulness concepts that I hope shape all insightsoftware leaders and our company.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Another former colleague of mine used to remind us that, in business and in life, we’re all jugglers and there will always be more balls to juggle than you can keep up. The successful people, she always said, were the ones who could “identify the crystal balls from the rubber balls.” In other words, know which ones you could drop and which ones are truly, truly critical. I love that quote and have shared it a thousand times over the years. How many of us get forced to make tradeoffs every single day on who or what gets our attention? Family, personal health, integrity without compromise, being truly present with others, being accountable, treating others the way you want to be treated, and always doing your best even when no one is looking…those are some of the most precious “crystal balls” of life. Don’t ever drop those.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My dad was a teacher for many years, both high school and middle school. When I was young, he’d bring me into his classrooms, and I’d see the impact he had on his students. Every year, there were new students and more opportunities for him to have a direct impact on their lives. Today, even 30+ years later, former students still contact him to share how much he meant to them. The numbers say there are over three million teachers in the United States alone, and I saw a stat recently that suggested the average teacher touches over 3,000 students in his or her teaching career. Think about the magnitude of that for a second! So, somebody explain to me why teachers are paid considerably less than most other college graduates, have an average salary that’s essentially been flat for 20 years, see a widening pay gap each year and spend something like $500 per year of their OWN money on supplies for the students they love?! It’s a tragedy. No wonder the number of people who choose to be teachers is shrinking annually. What will that mean to your kids and mine? My movement would be to invest in our children and the future of our country by investing in our teachers. Raise the nobility of the profession, pay them commensurate with the value they create and create an ecosystem where more citizens want to give their time and experience to others. Every successful person I know has a story of a teacher who believed in them, pushed them, invested in them…so let’s pay it forward.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

— –

About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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