“Don’t let minutiae kill the whale”

I had a hard time brainstorming on a leadership topic this morning.  Here I am, already a day late in regards to the folks who expect to receive these leadership notes on Wednesday, there are approximately 10 high priority items on my plate today, 90 emails in my inbox all in need of a response, and my calendar has 24 items on my to-do list today.  Sometimes I start the day with 20 things to do, get them all done, and then still end up with 20 more left at the end of the day.  In addition, everyday ends with me performing the ritual of moving remaining items from my calendar to sometime  in the future.  But on any given day, there are usually only a handful of items that must be completed.  It may be finishing a final bid response, a final meeting with a large prospect, addressing a personnel issue, acting like an attorney to review a contract/agreement, taking the next step in an acquisition, or maybe getting directly involved with a customer support issue.  These are the items that we classify as time sensitive and important to the stability/growth of the organization.  These are our “whales” (and they are different for each of us) and if we get too caught up in the everyday minutiae and fail to prioritize, the large opportunities go away, and problems mount.

Having a set of rules that help prioritize is essential.  First thing is to get over it and understand that we are not allowed to feel sorry for ourselves.  Leaders are expected to work hard, be depended upon, and to be the one that others look to when the organization no longer knows its direction.   In fact, if there is not much going on, or if there are no complicated issues or decisions to be made, why does the organization need us?  So first thing is to embrace it, and then focus on how to manage all the “stuff”.  The truth is that some things are not as time sensitive and will get neglected.  However, a hardened rule is that we must never neglect customers or employees.  We can’t focus on our whales if we don’t have our house in order, and customers and our team make up the foundation.  Also, if we have these two things right, much of the minutiae disappears.   So if there is an item that pops up in my inbox and it has to do with a customer or employee, it has priority over everything else.  It is also best to fix these issues at their root cause, so that they do not come up again.

Prioritizing our whales is a different deal.  At any given time, we may have 10-20 or even 50.  Some are just in the idea stage, some have grown some legs, and some are in the time sensitve stage of needing to be closed for good or bad.  Prioritizing these depends on many factors, all of which are unique to each organization.  For example, if growth is the top priority and acquisition is the way to go, then that is where most of the focus and priority should be placed.  If stability and customer retention are the top priorities, then refining the customer support system is the top priority.  If the culture of the organization is ill-defined and the people who make up the team are not happy, then that should take priority (because if the team is not happy, it also impacting customers). 

In summary, the highest prority should be placed on customer/employee satisfaction.  This is the best way to proactively avoid much of the minutiae that deflects our focus on big picture items.  For our big picture items / “whales”, we must prioritze them to be in line with the goals of the organization.  As for the times when we feel we are doing everything we can, but are so covered up in the minutiae that we cannot get to the bigger items, it is likely time to make changes.  We may need new team members, existing team members to step up, or we may even need to change the direction of the organization.  Regardless, it is our responsibility to not drown in the details, and to continue leading our teams forward.