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Are You Servant to Urgent?

Not Enough Hours in the Day

Do you get to the end of the day, week or month and wonder where your time has gone? Do you feel like you’ve spent the week responding to others’ requests? Do you feel that you’ve made meaningful progress against your own highest priority initiatives? Or, do you spend your evenings and weekends doing your own work because you’ve spent the entire day, week or month supporting others’ priorities? If after completing a busy time period, you feel like you got little or nothing done towards your own objectives, you’re not alone.

Digital Interruptions Influence Time Management

Email, text messages and phone calls all serve as interruptions drawing your time and attention to the needs or priorities they contain. For many of us, we tend to interrupt what we’re doing and read/respond to emails and text messages or answer the phone in real-time, like a subconscious or knee-jerk reaction. These interruptions often add action items to your own to do list – gather data, send report, follow-up with so-and-so, attend a meeting, assign a project, etc. – aligned with the initiator’s priorities and deliverables at the expense of your own. Sound familiar?

You are hired or promoted to deliver business impact through yourself, your leadership and your team. Too often, leaders get caught up in the urgent requests or prioritize asks from others above their own initiatives. Does that happen to you?

Step 1: Recognize the Behavior

The first step is to recognize the behavior – that you are routinely being interrupted by and prioritizing efforts supporting others’ business priorities over your own. Successful businesses rely on collaboration and teamwork. At the same time, they rely on each leader playing their own position on the field and delivering on their specific business objectives to benefit the company overall. Leaders must be diligent to serve both demands – being a team player and delivering expected business results for which they are accountable.

Step 2: Take Action

The next step is being deliberate to do something about it which will enable you to both serve the broader business and deliver on your specific business objectives.

Set Digital Boundaries

Time management experts routinely tout the value of muting your phone or shutting down your email to end interruptions and allow periods of concentrated work and limit the derailing interruptions. Try it – it only takes self-discipline and it works.

Acknowledge But Confirm the Hierarchy Obligation

Experience reminds us that not all “asks” are equal – that is, assignments or requests from our boss or their boss are often mandates and not optional. When first I joined the senior executive team and later the C-suite, reporting to the same manager, “suggestions” were clearly prescribed priorities with an expectation of near immediate turnaround attached to them. The “asks” were often assignments to complete with high quality regardless of whether they aligned with my job title, responsibilities and business priorities.

While “asks” from those above us may sound like a priority, skilled executives probe for clarification on whether the request is truly a priority and at the expense of existing priorities. Often though, efforts such as these are non-negotiable – they’re part of the reality of operating in a professional hierarchy. The strongest leaders are able to deftly discern between the two cases.

Be Deliberate with Your Currency: Your Time

Given that some “asks” are mandates and will drain your available capacity, it becomes even more important that as an executive, you deliberately manage the rest of your available capacity.

The 2x2 Time Management matrix (Figure 1) categorizing Urgent/Not Urgent and Important/Not Important tasks was made popular by Stephen Covey in his “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Based on the original inception by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the matrix presented a helpful framework to enable leaders to effectively self-manage their time.

Focus your Time for Impact

My own experience as a C-level executive at Fortune 500 companies and across multiple executive leadership roles has taught me a valuable corollary. Ensure that you are allocating and investing your time in activities where you can make an impact (Figure 2).

First, let me add a little nuance about the Eisenhower/Covey dimensions.

  • Urgent: Urgent activities will always arise in business and as leaders, we must triage, prioritize, assign and delegate them as the nature of the urgency requires and to the appropriate stakeholders (including ourselves). My experience has taught me that establishing good business process and culture enables us to plan, inspect and proactively manage the business to avoid or minimize urgent disruptions. Without this diligence, we sacrifice “important” for “urgent” and in the process, we ultimately risk failing to deliver intended business results, impacting employee morale and driving talent turnover.

  • Important: Identifying the important activities or efforts – those that will have greatest impact towards business objectives – differentiates strong leaders. These leaders think about achieving business outcomes like a sophisticated game of chess, recognizing the motivations and possible moves by key internal and external stakeholders. They plan their moves, several steps ahead, considering the possible permutation of moves by key stakeholders and/or competitors. This deliberate forward or strategic thinking helps avoid unexpected disruptions (per above) and serves as a compass for investing their own time and that of their team on the efforts that will best contribute to business results.

Assess Your Potential Impact

The new dimension to consider: “can affect” vs. “cannot affect.” Teamwork and collaboration are important and typically enjoyable aspects of business. But, many leaders get sucked into business initiatives because they were asked – by their staff, a colleague or a friend – often engaging without thought. But do we pause frequently enough to think through whether our involvement can positively affect the effort and drive towards the outcome? Whether we are the best person or team to support the effort? And if so, at what opportunity cost?

At times, our desire to serve the team clouds our critical consideration of relative priorities. First, is our engagement optional or mandatory – depending on the request, the requestor or the required timeline? If not, is our engagement in a particular initiative going to both drive the outcome and contribute more meaningfully than if our time was invested elsewhere? Do we recognize that not all requests are obligations?

Your time, attention and intellect are your currency – they contribute to your current and future successes. By focusing your efforts on items where you and your team can affect the outcome, you avoid blurring priorities away from business objectives and spinning wheels unproductively, while ultimately contributing to the most meaningful business results. If the ask is discretionary and you and your team can’t meaningfully affect the outcome or if you’re engagement is at the expense of either a more important initiative or one where you can have a more meaningful impact, should the initiative really be your priority?

It is disciplined and relentless prioritization of time investment as a function of business outcomes that will enable you to apply your most valuable contribution – your discretionary time and that of your team – and deliver on your business responsibility and commitment to deliver business results. Think about it.

I Know, But…

If this makes sense but is hard to consistently put into practice, consider learning more about your leadership style and tendencies you can manage to maximize your time investment and ultimately your business impact.

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Lisa Andrade is founder and CEO of M33, an executive coaching and leadership development company proven in both the “executive” and “coaching” in executive coaching. M33 leverages the art of leadership and advanced leadership science to create an executive blueprint tailored to you and your organization. For an initial consultation with Lisa, contact M33 at

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