The 1 Question You Need to Ask Yourself

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Ken Keller: On Business & Life

By Ken Keller
SCVBJ Contributor

Success in business is determined by how effectively the leader executes against their plans.
Each January, the only question that matters is “were the goals achieved?”

Most owners, CEOs and top executives I know are overwhelmed with daily work, despite that most started the year with goals, plans and the intent to move forward.

The day-to-day management of any business trumps working on the future.

Someone I respect told me, “Supervisors focus on the day; managers take care of the week; director-levels work on the quarter, vice presidents have a year-end horizon and the top exec should focus on the next three years.”

Is that how the management team load is working in your company or is everyone focused on the crisis of the day?

Put another way, how many of your team members are fighting fires?

What can be done about this; how can the initiative to being a forward facing company be regained?
The answer starts with a question, perhaps the most important question of the year: what are your real priorities?

We all know that emails, text messages and interruptions no longer permit a person to set the priorities of their day unless they are incredibly disciplined. And isolated.

Work is now being controlled by others sending requests for information; or they make a decision impacting your time or you are called into a meeting that may or may not be necessary.

Today, instead of having some sort of hierarchy of requests, anyone can (and frequently does) ask for something and each expects their request to be the highest priority of those that are asked.

What makes this untenable for the leader is that not only is leadership expected to set an example and respond timely to all these requests but because of the volume of requests there is much less time to address the longer term issues facing the company.

That “strategic to-do” list is usually buried within an hour of walking into the office. By Friday in a typical week people are genuinely wiped out and the fearless leader is too.

The problem is that the leader still has the challenge of doing things for the future of the business.
Because if the leader, the one person in charge of the future, isn’t focused on where the company is going, no one is.

The hidden impact of all this is on the stress levels of most employees. People find it near impossible to disconnect from smart phones in order to have some down time for vacation or even to get a decent night’s sleep. This never stop, all go mentality leads to burnout.

Many businesses are turning into 24/7 operations, similar to hotels, international airports and hospitals.
In this context, what should the priorities of a leader be?

The first should be personal health. If there is not enough time in the day to exercise, rest, eat decent food and get enough uninterrupted sleep, burnout will ensue.

The most successful leaders I know do not work anywhere near the 168 hours available in a week.
What they do is set three goals for each business day and before they leave work at a set time each day these three things are taken care of.

These individuals understand that no one can be truly effective after more than nine hours at work.
At that tipping point, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. People get tired, productivity drops, mistakes are made, meals are skipped and burnout starts.

By setting and keeping a non-negotiable, “get out of my way” time to leave each day, productivity increases dramatically. Things that seemed important earlier in the day are discovered to have minimal importance the closer to leaving time it is.

Second, they set an example by what they are doing, and they encourage their subordinates to follow them, to emulate them.

Meetings start and end on time. If they get off track, people become focused on their highest priorities for that day. Interruptions become fewer and brief; people quickly get back to work on what is important.

Third, they encourage their subordinates to make decisions. Managers and employees are given the latitude to take care of business. Each time one of these is successfully handled is one less thing the person at the top has to deal with, freeing their time to focus on the future.

Some leaders like to be the hero and rush in to save the day for their company. I have known some leaders to actually manufacture crisis because they were bored.

The best advice I can give you is to have a little sheet of paper on your desk for you to read as a daily reminder: What are my real priorities?”

For example, back when a commercial flight meant being served a meal, one airline CEO ordered the removal of the single black olive that had been included in the salad being served. He also reduced the number of olives in martinis from two to one.

In the process these two small decisions, the airline saved a significant amount of money. No one complained.

It’s never too late to have a better business. If you decide to change how you invest your time, change from being a firefighter to an architect, by working on the business model, your people, and profitability.

Ken Keller is an executive coach who works with small and midsize B2B company owners, CEOs and entrepreneurs. He facilitates formal top executive peer groups for business expansion, including revenue growth, improved internal efficiencies and greater profitability. Email: [email protected]. Keller’s column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of the SCVBJ. 

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