Corner Office-The Tyranny of the Urgent

Corner Office-The Tyranny of the Urgent

Are you making progress or just spinning your wheels?

Have you ever imagined a fly sitting on top of your desk watching you during a typical day? It would see you arrive at the office in the early morning, rush from meeting to meeting while urgently firing out e-mails and phone calls. It would buzz around your “working lunch” at the conference table, and be left in the dark after you turn out the lights in the evening.

If the fly could ask about your day, you’d tell him that you had extinguished fire after fire and felt like you were barely able to keep your head above water. “There’s simply not enough time,” you’d tell him, while pushing feelings of tiredness, anxiousness, and depression away. You’d tell him that even on the weekends, when you’re supposed to be spending quality time with your family, work is constantly on your mind. Your cell phone keeps ringing and e-mails fill up your inbox.

I have to confess that this isn’t exactly a product of my imagination. In fact, it’s an accurate description of most of my days. But an advantage of having to write this column once a month is that it forces me to reflect. Lately, I’ve realized that everyone is in such a rush that we don’t have time to do things right (with the irony being that we’re forced to find time to do them over).

We are reactive, constantly putting out fires rather than proactively executing strategy. Instead of careful planning for the future of our businesses, we get mired down in the details. And when we get overloaded, tired, anxious, and depressed, it’s not even socially acceptable to take time to heal. We have given up our time to recover and regroup and instead press ahead in the name of progress.


Is This Progress?

Because this feeling of overload has been nagging me, I recently read Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Dr. Richard A. Swenson. I particularly liked a story he tells about his Grandpa, an immigrant from Sweden. His grandpa had a tough pioneer life. He struggled with health problems, the death of two infants, and trying to provide food and shelter for his family. My own family has a similar story.

By contrast, most U.S. citizens today have access to health care and education, a warm home in the winter, and a reliable supply of safe and healthy food. In fact, we have an abundance of the things that the pioneers only dreamed of having.

We still work as hard as the pioneer generation, but at different types of jobs—all in the name of getting ahead and making progress. We have the leisure activities, conveniences, and comforts that the pioneers never would have imagined. Yet we’re still not happy, and our society suffers from unacceptably high levels of divorce, depression, teen pregnancy, crime, drugs, alcoholism, childhood obesity, and stress-related diseases. Would Grandpa call this progress? I don’t think so.


Distracted Managers

I could go on and on about the effects of overloaded lives on society in general, but for the purposes of this column, I’m focusing my comments on the overloaded, rushed, harried lives of business leaders.

According to research conducted by Heike Bruch, a professor of leadership at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and Sumantra Ghoshal, a professor of strategy and international management at the London Business School, only about 10 percent of managers use their time as effectively as they could. In “Beware the Busy Manager,” their February 2002 Harvard Business Review article, Bruch and Ghoshal wrote that the least effective managers are the ones who look like they are doing the most. These busy managers (and that’s most of us, according to their research) think they’re doing something important, but are really just spinning their wheels.

Bruch and Ghoshal say that “A mere 10 percent of managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner.” To improve effectiveness, Bruch and Ghoshal advise managers to think of a focus-energy matrix with low to high focus along the vertical axis and low to high energy along the horizontal axis. Low focus and low energy result in procrastination (30 percent of managers), high focus and low energy result in disengagement (20 percent of managers), and low focus and high energy result in distraction (more than 40 percent of managers).

In my experience, it’s the well-intentioned high-energy but unfocused and overloaded managers that cause the most trouble. That’s because they have a “fire, ready, aim” attitude. They don’t take the time to think things through, and have trouble following through with strategy or just about anything else. These managers are focused on short-term goals, resulting in a constant pattern of starting and then abandoning projects. This develops into CYA (cover your ass) management. But operating out of fear and risk aversion is not a good way to manage a business.

Some people’s personalities lead them to operate this way, but a lot of the time it’s an organization’s corporate culture that pushes people to operate in this manner. In these organizations, managers constantly try to one-up each other on who put in the longest hours or wrote the most e-mails.


The Cure for Busyness

If you suffer from busy-manager syndrome, alleviate your stress by trying to be what Bruch and Ghoshal call “the purposeful manager.” These managers are both highly energetic and highly focused on the right actions, so they achieve critical, long-term goals more often, according to the authors. These people know what battles to fight—they don’t major in the minors. They also put limits on their work life and make time for exercise and other leisure activities that refuel their mental and physical resources.

Jim Collins, best-selling author of the Good to Great books, would agree, I think. This is how he sums up his research about why some companies are great and others aren’t: “The point of this entire book is not that we should ‘add’ these findings to what we are already doing and make ourselves even more overworked. No, the point is to realize that much of what we’re doing is at best a waste of energy. If we organized the majority of our work time around applying these principles, and pretty much ignored or stopped doing everything else, our lives would be simpler and our results vastly improved.”

As the quote at left from Antoine de Saint-Exupery illustrates, busy, distracted, and overloaded leaders—the majority of us—need to take a step back and reflect on our priorities. Instead of telling your organization how to build the ship, teach them the desire for the sea.

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