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Center for Effective Philanthropy just published this piece. Co-written with my Saroga partner, Gavin Fenn-Smith.



I have yet to encounter the organization that says: Our priorities are clear, people have enough time to complete action items, no one is getting 3am emails from their managers, firefighting is a rare occurrence, we get stuff done but nobody is driven crazy. It would be nice but that just is not reality. But could it possibly be that absolutely everything is top priority and urgent?

To watch and listen to most leaders, staff have come to believe that, yes, everything is an emergency and must be attended to ASAP. Of course, they must drop the 6 other urgent things they are dealing with to now address the current number one issue. I’m not alone in knowing this is utterly insane.

What I think executives lose sight of is their world operates at hyper-speed. They are answering to investors and boards and overseeing the whole enterprise. They jump from one thing to another on a constantly dynamic checklist. I often think of it as 3-D chess and just as one move is made the board is more complicated and other new moves must follow to protect the queen. This is part of the job description.

The problem comes when the directives hit the staff. Go here! Now go there! Now reverse course! Drop that and do this instead! In the insulated world of the exec team this is normal but in the reality of the staff who have to carry out these plans it can be impossible to keep up. Many struggle to complete tasks adequately or not drop any of the spinning plates. Many clock long hours in and out of the office to stay on top of things but never quite achieve that.

So how can these two worlds come together in saner ways?

Most of the responsibility falls on the execs. Try this at home:

  • Your 3am emails are sending a message. Every time I say to a leader, “When your director reads his emails at 7am and sees that you sent yours at 3am he believes he should have been awake to reply right then.” To a person, the exec says, “Heavens no! I don’t expect anyone to keep my nutty hours. I just don’t sleep much.” You may say that but your actions are difficult to interpret any other way than, “I’m working, why aren’t you?” So save the emails as drafts and hit the send button when normal people are awake. Fewer unintended consequences that way.
  • Take a breathe. If your motor revs very high chances are there is a nanosecond between your thoughts and your actions. You think, “Jason ought to look into X” turns into an immediate call to Jason (who sees your name on the caller ID so interrupts the big meeting he is conducting with a key client at that time) with the directive, “Look into X”. The unspoken assumption is “right away”. Really? Seriously? Could it be that every passing thought you have is that critical? If so then you must be some kind of super hero. Please jot your thought down and come back to it later in the day or tomorrow. If it is still relevant then you can send an email. Give Jason a friggin’ break.
  • It’s okay for you to wait. Your status makes everyone around you feel they have to say “how high” every time you say “jump”. Rather than taking advantage of your position how about being a mensch (yiddish for “a decent human being”). Show some respect for other people’s time and pressing priorities. You don’t always have to take cuts to the front of the line. That is a privilege to use sparingly…when something truly is urgent.
  • Don’t give demerits to those who say no to you. If you receive push back from an employee who challenges either the correctness of your directive or your sense of timing, have a listen. A really savvy direct report knows how to manage you in ways that are good for the business. Rather than concluding that Sarah “doesn’t have that fire in her belly” you might want to consider that Sarah has figured out how to achieve objectives in some rather clever ways.

And to those of you who report into the execs or are part of the close inner circle of go-to folks, I have one bit of advice for you. It’s okay to say no. It will not be career limiting. It will not be the end of the world. It might not be received well but it might be just the right message. Schedule a meeting to talk about priorities and urgency. Describe the challenge for you to meet all these pressing needs and not have quality suffer. Talk together about a more productive approach.

I’m not silly enough to think that warp-speed execs will slow down. But I do think some of them will be responsive (for periods of time) to knowing that they are driving you nuts. Most don’t want you to burn out or leave. So don’t shy away from having the discussion. Maybe s/he can get a grip on some of the roadrunner behavior. And when they revert to their old ways simply say “beep beep”!!

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