Tools for an Executive to Stay Focused

April 24, 2023

Filed under: Board Development,Human Resources,Leadership — jonathanpoisner @ 3:46 pm

Quite a few times I’ve encountered Executive Directors who come across as very competent.  Their writing is cogent. Documents they produce are always well-formatted. They are well-spoken in person, laying out clear ideas. They get a lot of stuff done. Many tasks are clearly getting crossed off their to-do list. They clearly work a lot of hours.

Yet, their organizations flounder.

Almost always, it’s because they’re getting the wrong tasks done.

By wrong, I don’t mean they are doing tasks that are inherently counterproductive.  It’s that they’re doing tasks that should be priority 6 through 10 when priorities 1 through 5 are crying out for more attention.

Peter Drucker wrote extensively about this 50 years ago in his seminal book: The Effective Executive, which I have reviewed.  The effective executive not only does things right, they do the right things. 

How can an executive stay focused on the top priorities in order to be more effective?

In every organization I’ve encountered, the Executive Director (or CEO) could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and not run out of useful things to do on behalf of their organization. Of course, in the real world you have 40 hours per week on a sustained basis, with some executives able/willing to let that spike to 50-60 hours for extended periods.

How do you decide what to do within the time available?

My first recommendation for an Executive Director when evaluating a potential tasks/projects is to filter it through three questions to determine whether to not do a task.

Question one is: is the task/project essential to our organizational strategy. Whether or not the organization’s strategy is embodied in a written strategic plan, you should know what your goals are and the strategies you’re using to achieve them. If a task doesn’t squarely fit within one of the strategies to achieve one of your goals, it is almost always suspect.

Question two is: should I be the one to do this task? Just because it fits within the organizational strategy doesn’t mean the Executive Director should tackle it. What tasks should fall to the E.D. and what to other staff, to contractors, or volunteer leaders?

Even in an organization with no other staff or contractors, an E.D. who isn’t finding ways to delegate tasks to the board or other volunteers is almost always going to tackle tasks that take them away from higher priorities.

A question any Executive Director can ask: is this something that requires the E.D.’s participation either because of my unique skills or relationships? If not, your first step should always be to ask: who else would be better to do it?

This filter is especially important for an Executive to use when receiving requests that they participate in meetings. More often than not when I encounter a floundering executive, they are heavily scheduled into meetings where they aren’t essential participants. They just don’t want to miss out on the “action.”

A third filter to apply is to ask the question: is the task the cake or the icing on the cake?

Put another way, is accomplishing this task an essential building block to the overall success of the organization or is it just one nice outcome we want? Unless and until the essential building blocks are achieved (or on track for achievement), tasks that are simply positive should be shelved.

Think about posting a sign within your eyesight at your desk with these three questions:

  • Is it strategic?
  • Am I essential?
  • Is it the cake or just the icing?

In addition to using these filters to nix involvement in some tasks, there are three other tactics I recommend to Executives looking to become more focused.

First, identify up-front what are the most important tasks you struggle to complete. (Oftentimes that’s major donor fundraising). The solution: calendar large blocks of time to focus on the activities you struggle to complete and rigorously stick to that schedule. Force yourself to stick to a schedule where everyone on your team knows you aren’t to be disturbed.

Second, cut out the easy time-wasters. Examples of these include:

  • The meeting that takes an hour that could just as easily be accomplished in 30 minutes.
  • The half-dozen times during the day checking your Facebook because there might be something relevant to the organization’s work.
  • The extra 15 minutes formatting a document to be perfect when it was already good enough to be understood. (Occasionally, that extra 15 minutes matters, but usually not).

Lastly, beware shiny objects. These are the opportunities that come along that seem exciting on the surface. Perhaps you’re asked to speak to a group. Or to put together a media release on some breaking news of relevance.   Often, these are things that may gratify the ego, but really aren’t essential building blocks to organizational success. Get used to saying no and feeling good about it because when you say no to something new you’re saying yes to the core work you already have underway.

Do you have techniques of your own to share? I’d love to hear them.

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