Recently I was holding a leadership development program with managers and supervisors for one of my cable clients. The topic was time management. Before I started that particular module I said, “Before we get into this content, what do you really want to get out of this segment?”
I received uncomfortable stares from a few people. One guy decides to be the official group spokesperson. “Well first of all, I don’t think you understand how things are in this company.” He leaned back in his chair with authority. “So enlighten me,” I said. The following conversation ensued:
“Our boss says that there are 24 hours in a day, and if it takes that long, that is what it takes,” he said.
“Ok,” I said. “So what is your point?”
“No matter how hard we try and no matter what we do, we have no control over our time.”
Other people joined in:
“Yes—that is right. We run really lean here—not like other cable companies.”
“We are really busy.”
“The competition is fierce in our industry.”
“This place eats people up and spits them out.”
“I never get caught up.”
“No point getting caught up anyway—you just get more to do.”
“Do you have any idea how many emails we get a day?”
“Every time something changes, it changes again.”
“I work 90 hours a week.”
They all nodded. It was as if the floodgates had opened and two years of complaining brackish backwaters came rushing out, all at once.
I smiled at them all and said, “I understand, and I feel your pain. But if it makes you feel any better, this is what I hear from every client, everywhere, every week. All companies are lean, all are demanding and all are tough. If they aren’t, they don’t last long.”
Buried within this message that people are doing “more with less” is one that I think is even more important and critical—the lack of focus. Many people work really hard, but on too many things—that don’t move the needle in terms of results. It is as if we have institutionally-induced ADD. That is my diagnosis. So what is the solution?
Here are some tips to help your people get—and stay—focused:
1.What is the goal? Often I’ll ask a group in class if their organization has goals for the year. “Of course,” they say. I then ask who can tell me what they are. What comes next are downcast looks, furrowed brows and mumbled responses. Here is a statement that may genuinely shock you: Most people do not know the goals of your organization. They have no clue. That’s not to say they haven’t been told, but employees have lost focus on the goals—thanks to the 300 emails, phone calls, meetings, projects and the 100 other things they are balancing. We have to remind people in many ways throughout the year about the company and team goals. It can be done in an email, a group meeting, a conference call or one-on-one, face-to-face. Make sure they know; they can’t hit a target if they don’t know what the target is.
2.Teach people how to manage their time. We assume adults know how to manage their time. Well here is another piece of shocking news: Many don’t. We assume most people use some kind of time management system. Many don’t. In a class on time management I did a quick survey of each person in the class. I wanted to know what kind of time management system or tool they used. The answers were: 1) Don’t use one at all, 2) The company gave them one but they don’t use it, 3) a legal pad, 4) a whiteboard, etc. People have to know there are tools out there, but they don’t use them or they don’t know how to use them. Provide training on time management by coaching, having all team members read a time management book or bring someone in to teach them. Then hold all of them accountable for using some tool—like a BlackBerry or something else, as long as it’s not a legal pad.
3.Stop wasting time. Here is a question: Why are people still having meetings that are a waste of time? There are meetings still held every day that, 1) have no stated objective, 2) are not time-bound, 3) have no agenda, 4) have no one facilitating the meeting, and 5) are not actionable (meaning the group does not leave with a plan of who, what, where, when and why). Leaders who conduct the meetings say that this occurs, and they also say there are too many of them. So here is the deal: You have to set standards for meetings. Insist that they meet those five criteria. Get people to ask if a meeting is really needed and whether it could be accomplished some other way. Lastly, insist on punctuality. So many meetings get held up simply because people show up late.
4.Stop abusing the open door policy. Once upon a time the open door policy actually made sense. But that was a different time and place. Now, it is just a reason for people to be interrupted constantly. There have to be times when someone is not available, so that they can actually focus on a project they are working on. This also applies to people who work in cubicles.
Follow these guidelines to perform the true function of leadership: giving people guidance and support so they can focus on what really matters—results.
(A former VP at Comcast University, Shawn Doyle is a speaker and author of 10 books. He is President of New Light Learning and Development Inc., which specializes in training and development programs for cable. His site is: www.shawnspeakscable.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)