Sometime ago I was asked to help a guy who was falling behind. He was bright, appeared capable, yet couldn’t seem to deliver and meet the deadlines he’d been given. His name was Stephen and he worked for a professional services firm. As the company had grown so had the extra tasks and responsibilities of its executives. Everyone was required to do more.
I decided to start by trying to establish Stephen’s priorities. There is a golden rule here which many people ignore and it’s worth a reminder. Your priorities are set by how effective you are at delivering the tasks that you will be judged by. In other words, do not spend your time doing stuff that your bosses don’t really care about.
In Stephen’s case his ability to get things done was hampered by several contributing factors. I decided to ask his boss what he expected of him in order to be absolutely clear. You’ll not be too surprised to hear what Stephen believed he should be doing didn’t exactly match his boss’s view.
Too often there’s an assumption up the line that people know what’s expected. Probably best illustrated with new starters who are too often left to get on with it and end up thrashing around in the deep end. At the finish of their probation period they’re told it hasn’t gone that well. It’s at that point it’s revealed what they should have been doing. Not surprisingly they feel let down. “If you’d told me much earlier on I’d have known what to do”. Never mind how senior they are, people need looking after in the early days of a new job.
If you’ve people who aren’t meeting your expectations check they know what’s expected. I was able to help Stephen reset his priorities and focus on the things that mattered. However, we had a long way to go because like many long term employees he was institutionalised. By that I mean many of the things he was doing he did because he always had. In fact, he couldn’t explain why, because the original purpose had been long forgotten.
This is such an important point. Most of us like certainty and routine. It’s in our DNA to resist change. We can’t imagine doing things too differently so we tend to stick to what’s familiar. I went through every hour of Stephen’s calendar for a month. 70% of his time was spent in internal meetings. So there wasn’t much time for meeting clients, securing new business or working on delivery.
The truth is most people I meet say they attend far too many internal meetings. And they’re right. It’s taken me many years to acknowledge but I now know that virtually all meetings are a waste of time. Why? Because they’re mostly badly run and they don’t result in important actions. At best, it’s an information share.
I asked Stephen “why are you going to this meeting, what’s in it for them and what’s in it for you?”. As a result, we reduced his attendance by half which meant internal meetings were the minority of how he spent his time. And that’s how it always should be, for everyone.
Try this simple method of scoring your activity. Let’s agree that you’ve re checked your priorities with the people that matter so you know what’s expected of you. Go through your calendar and score each scheduled meeting (not just internal) or activity out of ten regarding its relevance to achieving what’s expected. Then pull out of all the low scoring stuff. Or shorten the meeting, or make it a call.
Stephen now uses this tool to help him decide how to spend his time. Now he’s clear what’s expected and he has the time and confidence to deliver. It really has transformed his behaviour and his career prospects too. As I told him, no one has ever been promoted because they spent all their time in internal meetings.
The next time you greet someone with the usual opening line “Hi how are you, how’s it going? You know more often than not they’ll reply “good but really busy”. You’ll know it’s more than likely that means too many internal meetings.
By David Mansfield, founder of The Drive Partnership and visiting professor at Cass Business School