Josh is doing a great job with his new company. He came on board as chief operating officer six months ago. During that time, he’s learned a complex business, staffed it up and addressed a lot of operations issues that have plagued the company. Josh’s CEO is ecstatic, but Josh worries that he might be missing something important. And he’s right.
Josh and I sat down recently to look at what might be missing, and it’s this: He’s tackling all the urgent issues (things that could blow up in the short term) but he’s putting off some of the non-urgent yet important projects, like creating his strategic vision, establishing a talent development process for his department and identifying someone to groom as his successor. It’s these important yet non-urgent items that will determine Josh’s long-term success at the company.
Josh is facing a very common challenge of ensuring that these projects are prioritized correctly. It’s a balancing act that foils many leaders, whether they’re new in a role or long-term veterans. Here’s how to get that balance right.
Don’t get distracted by urgency.
Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are rarely important, and the important are rarely urgent.” That’s the problem that many leaders face. Long-term strategies are at risk of being crowded out by more urgent, day-to-day, tactical items.
Here’s a framework that can help you avoid that distraction, and create more effective prioritization; it’s known as the Eisenhower Matrix.. Categorize all demands into one of four buckets:
1. Important and urgent: Things that have a high impact on the business (and that are critical to your success) and that have a tight, specific timeframe for delivery.
2. Important, but not urgent: Things that have a high impact on the business but are not under a tight or specific timeframe. Often, these are the critical projects for making long-term impact.
3. Not important, but urgent: Things that have a low impact on long-term business results but are on a tight timeframe and are visible. These tend to be tactical, day-to-day, operational demands, and they’re often non-strategic items.
4. Not important and not urgent: Things that have a low impact on long-term business results and are not under a tight or specific timeframe.
Most people think “important and urgent” items are the highest risk, but that’s typically not the case. Important and urgent items tend to attract attention and therefore get done. In reality, “important but not urgent” is the biggest risk area. Those are the projects that can get perpetually deprioritized, sometimes even by “unimportant but urgent” tasks. I call this “getting distracted by urgency,” and the dynamic can seriously derail leadership effectiveness.
It’s not about time management, it’s about focusing on leadership principles.
Many leaders believe lack of progress on the important but not urgent items is a time management issue, but that’s often a distraction from the real issue. All people (and teams) have finite time and resources. Good leadership means making decisions about what work will and will not be done. Long-term success is about making the best and most strategic decisions — that means avoiding distraction by urgency and ensuring that key resources are always focused on the right priorities.
Rather than thinking about time management, focus on three key leadership principles:
1. Clarify long-term vision and goals. Perhaps the most important thing for any leader’s success is clarity on long-term vision and goals. That means understanding the value you want to deliver and why the organization will be better off as a result. The more senior the leadership role, the more important the long-term vision and goals become. Articulate a long-term vision for your team, be clear on the results you want to deliver, and use the vision to align your team around the right initiatives — the ones that will have the most impact. Use your long-term vision as a filter for prioritization. In most cases, that will prioritize the most important tasks and help you avoid distraction by urgency.
2. Cultivate talent and delegate effectively. When leaders find themselves saddled with a high number of urgent items and unable to tend to important priorities, it’s a good idea to look at delegation. To what extent can you delegate less important projects to others on your team? Do you have the level of talent in your organization that allows others to deliver with minimum supervision? When delegation or talent development are insufficient, leaders will find themselves overwhelmed. Cultivate a level of talent in your team that will allow others to assume responsibility for less important items, build your ability to delegate with clear expectations, and establish systems that allow you to manage delivery with less direct involvement.
3. Negotiate and learn to (strategically) say no. The reality of finite resources means that not everything can be done. As a result, all leaders will, at some point, find themselves in a position where not all expectations can be met. That means having to negotiate with stakeholders, and those stakeholders could include your boss, external customers or peers. All leaders must build their ability to negotiate effectively in those situations. That way, they can better determine when it’s necessary to strategically say no to demands, and ensure that finite resources are always allocated to the right priorities.
This article was originally published on Forbes.com