Tell Me About Your Day

Here’s something people often say in companies when you ask them what they accomplished last week, last month, or last year:

“A lot of time is taken up by everyday stuff.”

Let’s talk about that. What is the everyday stuff? Is the work being produced commensurate with the expense?

A few years ago I wrote a post called Too Busy To Save Your Company. I refer to this post often when I am asked to look at a company and comment on why it is not as productive as it should be. It can be a consulting or investment meeting, but when I see lots of people running around or pounding on keyboards but an income statement in decline, I usually start by asking a few key people in the company to describe their days to me.

They often tell me that they spend a lot of time going to meetings and responding to email. When I remind them that meetings and email are not tasks, they are tools for accomplishing tasks, there is often an “Aha Moment.” That’s when I know we can make some progress.

You are wasting time. It is inevitable. How do I know? Because I waste time. Everyone does. No one is 100% efficient. The question is one of scope. Do you own your priorities or do distractions own you? When you start there, you begin to take control of your destiny.

Time management is neither a touchy-feely topic nor a chokehold on creativity. It is how you allocate your most precious and perishable resource, the ways you choose to spend your hours. The portion of your time that is discretionary and how you choose to utilize it is the difference between having a shot at winning and losing for sure. Note that I say it is a choice, because even if you don’t make active decisions about how you spend your hours, the choice to squander time remains a choice.

Try this exercise for a week: Write down hour by hour what you do on the job. If you spend an hour on researching the cost of something, write that down. Log each of your phone calls and meetings chronologically. More importantly, note what you were talking about and if any key decisions were made. Be as detailed as you can. If you read an article on the internet write that down, including what you learned or didn’t learn. If you shopped for yourself, chuckled through laugh-inducing videos, or commented passionately on Facebook, account for these by collecting them into small blocks of time. Don’t worry about the confession, you can delete the audit later. Be brutally honest and exceptionally thorough. This is solely for you.

Now go back and look at your goals for the year. If you don’t have any goals, that’s a much bigger problem which you need to solve before this post will be relevant to your progress. I’m going to assume you have 4 – 6 overarching annual goals agreed upon with the people who pay you or your partners, stuff like “increase sales 25%” or “decrease customer complaints 10%” or “launch 2 new apps per quarter” or “hire 15 regional salespeople.” You get the idea, stuff that matters, the stuff that keeps you from falling into the trap of being too busy to save your company.

Color code each item on your time accounting to match one of your goals. Try green for sales or blue for product improvements, soothing colors of accomplishment. If a block of time doesn’t match up with a goal, use a different color for DOES NOT APPLY TO A GOAL. A good color for this is red because it should be a warning color.

If you see very little red and an even distribution of the other colors against your 4 – 6 goals, you’re doing fine and can stop reading here. Congratulations, you are in perfect harmony and have a well-balanced calendar. As long as your company is growing and generating a healthy profit, this post is not for you.

On the other hand, if what you see is a disproportionate allocation of color — say, 80% blue but you have 4 other goals with minimal color showing— you are out of whack. If what you see is a sea of red, either quickly finish this post and get back to work or find another good post about writing a resume.

Now on a clean calendar, I want you to block your time as you should be spending it. If cold calls are 25% of what you should be doing, block 10 hours per week; it can be 2 hours each business day or 5 hours twice per week, whatever you fancy. I know, you work way more than 40 hours, but for budgeting purposes use that as a baseline.

Now compare the calendars. Want to know why you are not making a bigger dent in your goals? That’s why.

Time management is a subject I address regularly with colleagues as a proactive tool. Each time I assemble a new team, I have this talk with the senior people about their own time management and how seriously they take it, manage it, and monitor it. Leadership by example, right? The people who take it seriously are usually much more successful than the ones who blow it off. At its core, it is active versus passive resource management. Time lost is unrecoverable.

Oh, one more thing: Please don’t forget to set aside time for brainstorming and dreaming. Sometimes we call that shooting the sh*t. If it’s about stuff you think doesn’t matter, it might be wasteful. If it leads one big idea in a year, it can transform your business. Leave time to shoot the sh*t productively. The 5% to 10% of your time you leave for dreaming is where real change starts to happen and companies begin to reinvent themselves. If every minute of your day is consumed with scheduled or forgettable tasks, big ideas are going undiscovered.

Don’t leave all your time to everyday stuff. Do stuff that matters. Then dream on.

Your Next Move

Few people these days seem to have a lot of choices to make about job opportunities. With national unemployment stuck above 9% for the past 26 months, those who have jobs are largely counting their blessings, and those who don’t are spending most of their waking moments trying to get anything at all, hoping to stay in a field relevant to their expertise and not drain their savings. We all hear the stories of people’s sorrow, hardship, and demoralization. The impact is daunting, and those you meet fighting to pursue their passions and remain financially independent deserve our most sincere empathy. If you have the chance to offer support to a friend or networked acquaintance, do it. Even if all you can do is lend an ear, you may be surprised how much that outreach is valued and appreciated.

This past week I had the opportunity to lend an ear on a different tangent, helping advise a bright young rising executive on his next career move. I enjoy being able to mentor those whose careers I have watched evolve anywhere from one to thirty years, and although the last thing in the world I ever want to do (or will do) is tell someone what to do, I do like to put very difficult and often uncomfortable questions in front of people for them to answer, hoping that the thought process leads them to their own answers. My sense is, the better the questions, the better chance you have at improved answers, and anyone who knows me knows that I love to ask questions.

I didn’t know this fellow extremely well, but I had the good fortune of observing his broad range of skills. He called me up and wanted me to help him decide if he should leave his current position and take another offer. Simple enough, right? You have this package and set of circumstances, and the other company is offering that package and set of circumstances. Compare and contrast, make a decision, stay in place or move on. Well, if that’s your framework for making a career decision, I am certainly the wrong person to ask for coaching. First, you don’t need someone else to help you with that framework; you can do that math in your head all by yourself. Second, I would never use that framework; to me it’s a path to an almost certain dead-end.

Where I begin the process of deciding if you should make a move is with a very simple metaphor: have you ever played pool? If you haven’t, have you ever watched a pro run the table? And if you haven’t, check out Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman in the original 1961 version of The Hustler. But I digress. What you observe in the difference between amateur and professional pool is how the table is run. Amateurs look for the best shot on the table and sink that ball. Pros only take a shot when it lines up their next shot, so after a ball has dropped, there is another ball ready to drop, then another, then another, letting them run the table and only then sink the eight ball. A shot is only good if it sets up the next shot. Period.

That’s the framework I suggest for anyone trying to make a tough career decision: each move has to set up the next move, even if you don’t know where the balls are going to stop moving—which you never will, because our lives are governed by market forces and luck as much as they are our own determination (that’s a lesson humility teaches us). The job and package you have is a known. The package being offered is a known, the job not so much because you haven’t done it yet. What is unknown is where and when you will be at the end of the next job if you take it, and the one after that, and the one after that. Those can never be known, unless you can see the future, in which case you don’t need to have lunch with me.

To have a chance at getting the right decision, you’re going to need to answer three extremely personal questions. Sorry.

The first question I asked this fellow was quite simple: to what do you aspire? If you could see the future, five years out, ten years out, what do you think you want those illusive opportunities in your target sights to be? Force yourself to focus on that, think about what you want downstream. It may never happen and you may change your mind a dozen or more times between now and then, that’s fine and natural. Still, ask yourself right now, what is the downstream job you want?

Now the second question: why can’t you have that job right now? It’s a trick question. You can’t have it because it isn’t being offered, but the real question is what skills and experience don’t you have right now that would let you step into that job? You know what experience and knowledge you have today. What don’t you know or haven’t you learned to make you qualified for that opportunity? You must answer this honestly and specifically.

Now you’re ready for the third and most important question: what knowledge and experience do you need to acquire in your next opportunity to most closely qualify you for the opportunity beyond it? You know the present, you have an inkling of what you think you want the future to look like. How do you close the gap between the present and the future? What do you really want out of your next job to set you up for the job beyond it, or set you up for the best chance at the desired job beyond it, or set you up for the best and broadest set of potential choice opportunities for the job beyond it?

To me, that is how you decide if the next gig you are being offered is the right gig for you. Don’t take the shot unless it sets up another shot. More money is nice, more responsibility is nice, an expense account is nice, a beautiful office is nice. All of those things are very, very nice. And all of those things are fleeting. They can disappear in a nanosecond. When they are gone, what will you have? The only thing you will have is your experience—what you have learned is what you can take with you. Nothing more, including salary history. What you can do next is a combination of your track record, your integrity (= your reputation), and the probability that what you have learned will be of value to your next set of challenges.

At the end of our lunch, the fellow whom I assaulted with these questions made an interesting decision. He was neither going to stay in his current job nor take the new offer on the table. He was going to revisit an offer that had been made to him a few months earlier that he had rejected. He realized he had rejected it for the wrong reasons. He rejected it for the package and relocation requirement. When he thought about the opportunity downstream that he really wanted and the gap he needed to fill to be ready for that, the offer he rejected appeared to him to be the perfect fit. He left the lunch hungry to see if that gig would still be there, and if not, how he could actively find one more like it. He was 100% focused on filling the learning gap—that was his new criteria! That felt pretty spot on to me, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. I have a pretty good idea that he and I will be talking again in about five years.

Oh, one more thing. If you are going to be a manager and have never had a good boss, get one. The odds are terribly against this, as you know from your history. The reason most employees complain about their bosses is because their bosses aren’t good bosses, and the reason their bosses aren’t good bosses is because they never had a really good boss. There is no way you can learn to be a good boss if you haven’t experienced one, been mentored by one, and drained them dry of all they know. If this is part of the package, value it over cash big time. Most people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. The value of someone who cares about you and will help you become your best cannot be quantified.