One key to leadership success is limiting your availability. To be a strategic enabler of business, you must find the time to be strategic. Therefore, you must guard what little you have, so you can complete your high-value tasks.
Managing your availability requires close attention to the truly important. Once you reach higher levels in leadership, you can’t allow the mundane to distract you; you shouldn’t be running around putting out brushfires, especially when others can do so less expensively. Additionally, that style of management comes perilously close to micromanaging.
Always keep this in mind as you climb the corporate ladder: in almost every case, what you do as a leader will affect the organization more than anything you did while you occupied lower rungs. You forget this at your peril, as debacles like Enron and AIG make readily apparent.
No More Open Doors
This applies at the personnel level, too. Because you must focus on strategic issues, you have less time to make yourself available to most of your team members. While it would be nice to maintain an open-door policy, that’s not a realistic option as you ascend the corporate ladder—even though some organizations have started to move in this direction. Some, in fact, have gone so far as to put their upper executives in offices that leave them completely exposed to everyone, a la Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s open-space office in New York City.
While this provides an interesting and even refreshing change from the old days, when executives closeted themselves away in inner sanctums protected by secretarial dragons, I don’t believe an open-door policy really works for leaders in the long run. To some extent, high-level executives have to remain cloistered from the rest of the organization and protect their time from everyone who wants a piece of it. There’s nothing intentionally elitist about this, although it may seem so: it’s just that the people at the very top have too many strategic projects on their plates to handle low-level considerations, and the people who report to are there to handle day-to-day questions.
Assignment and Entrustment
Aside from all the standard time management techniques you should put into play as a matter of course, a primary tool in managing your availability is delegation. Hand off as much decision making as you can to other people, authorizing and empowering them to perform those tasks with a minimum of interference and oversight. Your hands should be light on the reins, with an eye toward making sure things keep running smoothly, rather than rolling up your sleeves and diving into the fray yourself. Handle directly only those things you do best that are most profitable to your organization, whether that means meeting with the Board of Directors and defending your department’s budget, juggling high-stakes projects, or developing new marketing strategies. However, never delegate key strategic decisions; leaders must always outline the priorities others will execute.
The Dragon Still Sits at the Gate
Your Executive Assistant plays a key role in insulating you and taking on all the administrative tasks that come with an executive position. This represents another form of entrustment, albeit a very specialized one; and the EA acts as more than just a glorified secretary. Like a chief of staff in the military or a presidential administration, the EA handles those facets of the leader’s job requiring specialized knowledge but minimal authority, as well as any “housekeeping” tasks associated with the position. This may include liaising between departments, organizing special events, research, information gathering, project coordination…and, of course, handling the executive’s schedule, acting as the gatekeeper who limits access. Make sure your EA is incredible.
The Bottom Line
Like it or not, you no longer have the option of making yourself available to everyone once you step up to a higher-level leadership position. You absolutely have to take control of your time, in every way possible, simply to keep from becoming overwhelmed. Your time, therefore, becomes more precious than gold…and your efforts to conserve it all come back to managing your availability.