Our recent leadership research revealed that leaders of leaders need less in order to do more. At first glance, this stated desire for fewer priorities could look like a desire to shirk responsibilities. What it really signals is that leaders want to be more effective in their role through greater depth of focus. Today’s leaders of leaders face myriad challenges to remain agile in an ever-changing market. Being responsive to shifts can lead to increased priorities for these leaders, though not necessarily the ability to achieve greater impact.
What is the result of too many priorities? The dilution of focus. When there is a never-ceasing stream of reactionary to-dos, genuine strategic forward momentum is sacrificed. For leaders of leaders in particular, this is critical, as they are responsible for driving strategy throughout the organization. When a leader has fewer priorities, they are able to go deeper in solving the root of the problem. Having fewer priorities allows leaders to not just solve the problem at hand, but also identify a solution for the problem beneath the problem.
Anyone who has ever tackled a difficult project knows it gets much, much more difficult before finding a way through. Being able to go deep with a particular challenge can lead to finding the many otherwise unidentified connections within the system so that the final solution is a genuine solution, rather than a Band-Aid in the moment.
To successfully achieve a priority, focused attention is needed. People have a finite amount of mental energy for the day. In the same way that a person needs both physical activity and rest to have a healthy, high-functioning body, their mind needs times of focused attention as well as rest for peak performance. Having too many priorities means each priority receives significantly less attention, resulting in less-effective solutions and potentially fewer solutions overall, not to mention the overall negative effects that too many priorities can have on a leader’s well-being. The stress of too many priorities and the frustration associated with the unlikelihood that all priorities can be achieved (resulting in a lack of real impact) take their toll.
We’ve heard from leaders of leaders that they need fewer priorities in order to be successful. The more organizations push for this less-is-more approach, the more substance they will get from their leaders of leaders. But what do leaders do if they have a list of priorities that exceeds realistic expectations?
Communicate – Leaders should clearly communicate why fewer priorities would allow them to accomplish more. When communicating up in an organization, it is always recommended to come in with a proposal for how to solve the problem that was identified, so leaders should be ready to name which priorities they think should be focused on and why.
Leaders shouldn’t just communicate up though; they should communicate the need across and down in the organization, clearly letting people know what they are trying to solve for in a particular priority. Leaders might not know who might have the insight, experience, or reference needed, so they shouldn’t be afraid to engage others who may not seem like possible candidates to help.
Prioritize – A leader should choose one to two priorities they will dedicate the most time to. They should ask themselves whether there are any that can be set aside completely for the time being. Then they should put planning into motion. It is recommended they carve at least a half hour per week for the simple task of planning out their strategy for making progress on that priority. They should ask themselves what steps to take, who to reach out to, and when. Then they should block time on their calendar to complete those items so they don’t get swept away in the rush of the week. If leaders don’t regularly dedicate time for planning, they may feel unproductive at first. But it directly creates the opportunity to be strategic.
Engage Their Community – Leaders don’t have to achieve their priorities in a silo. They should enlist someone on their team for the smaller priorities: It can lead to a growth and development opportunity for them. Leaders should ask themselves whether there are there any priorities that can be delegated to someone on the team to take on the deep-thinking part of the work so they can create that time for themselves on something with higher stakes? Leaders should connect with those that can give them access to the influencers and decision-makers that need to be involved in order for the final solution to be a successful one.
Many organizations have found themselves reorienting to a do-more-with-less approach in order to remain customer focused and financially strong. This same approach can unleash the potential for genuine, strategic impact for leaders of leaders when applied to their list of priorities.