Monday, November 01, 2010

Executive Stretch

Many executives and senior managers find themselves overstretched, often working excessively long hours with a consequence to their work-life balance. It’s a situation exacerbated by the recession, where the solution to economic difficulty is regularly touted as “achieving more with less”.

The concept is meant to translate into finding more efficient and effective ways of working, but all too often it results in doing the same things, the same way, but with less people and therefore simply an increase in everyone’s workload.

Yet for an executive, it’s not simply the volume of work that’s an issue, but the type of activities they spend their time in.

There’s a simple model that can help in understanding this. Consider that there are three levels of work.
•    Level 1: Future – strategy, direction, business development, change
•    Level 2: Overall management of current business operations
•    Level 3: Involvement in specific operational tasks, issues, problems, crisis

In a recent course, I asked a group of senior managers to consider how their time, by percentage, is typically split between these three levels. The results were interesting. Those that, by their own definition, were overstretched, were spreading their time between all three levels, often with level 1 activities suffering as a consequence of  their situation forcing them to spend more than 50% of their time in level 3 activities. In other words they were getting lost in the detail.

The model suggests that to be effective, executive time should be split between the top two levels, with most time being spent in level 1 – and only a small percentage of time, less than 10%, in level 3 activities.  Those that considered that they worked hard, but were not overstretched, had more of a tendency to this balance.

So it’s not the amount that people do, but the stretch between too many competing challenges at different levels that seems to cause a problem. The urgent things, as is so often the case, were taking precedence over the important things, and the short-term taking precedence over the long-term.

To address this the cycle has to be broken. This means making the time for activities that will lead to long-term results in readdressing the balance.  For example, taking the time to coach others in how to do things.  In the short-term this takes more time than simply doing whatever it is yourself, but in the long-term, it will enable you to delegate more.

Ultimately it’s a simple message. To become less over-stretched, to achieve better results for the business and to improve your work-life balance the most important question is not “how do I squeeze more into a day?” – but “what should I be doing, and what should I not be doing?”

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