Business Productivity: For Executives – Availability and Scheduling

“There cannot be a crisis today; my schedule is already full.” — Henry Kissinger, American politician.

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Stephen R. Covey, time management and productivity guru.

“A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.” — Annie Dillard, Pulitzer Prizing winning author.

One of the core keys of SuperCompetence is Availability: your willingness and ability to protect your time, so that you can accomplish your desired activities. At the C-Suite level, this translates as Scheduling—and Scheduling is about more than just accomplishing the things that you want to accomplish. CEOs, CFOs, Presidents, VPs, Directors, and similar high-level executives have responsibilities that far transcend the average worker’s; the fact that they tend to face those responsibilities in much plusher surroundings doesn’t obviate the reality that, more than ever, they’re hemmed in by their need to limit their availability.

Like Prioritization, Scheduling requires very close attention to what’s truly important—and it’s critical to getting anything important done at all. Once you reach the top, you have to protect your time diligently if you want to keep accomplishing things that are valuable to the organization. You can’t allow yourself to be distracted by the mundane: that is, it’s not up to you to run around putting out brushfires, especially when other people can do so less expensively. That style of management comes perilously close to micromanaging, and it’s even more harmful for the upper-level executive than it is for lower-level managers, because it more directly harms the entire organization.

That’s something that you should always keep in mind as you climb the corporate ladder: in almost every case, what you do as a C-Suite executive—whether good or ill—will affect the organization more than anything you did while you occupied lower rungs on the ladder. You forget that at your peril, as debacles like Enron and AIG make readily apparent.

This applies at the personal level, too. Because you have to focus on high-level tasks, there’s not much time left to make yourself available to the lower echelon. While it would be nice to maintain an open-door policy like mid-level managers sometimes do, that’s not usually a realistic option for the top-level exec…even though some companies have started to move in that direction. Some, in fact, have gone so far as to put their upper executives in offices that leave them completely visible to all and sundry, a la Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s open-space office in New York City.

While this is an interesting and even refreshing change from the old days, when executives closeted themselves away in inaccessible inner sancta protected by secretarial dragons, I don’t believe openness and availability is going to work for them in the long run. To some extent, high-level executives have to remain cloistered from the hoi polloi. There’s nothing elitist about this: it’s just that people at the very top have too much on their plates already to be bothered by low-level considerations.

You absolutely have to take control of your time, in every way possible, simply to keep from becoming overwhelmed.

Aside from all the standard time management techniques that you should put into play as a matter of course, your primary tool in Scheduling should be delegation. It’s imperative to hand off as many tasks as possible to other people, and to empower them to perform those tasks with a minimum of interference and oversight. Your hands should be light on the reins, with an eye toward ensuring that things keep running smoothly rather than rolling up your sleeves and jumping in with both feet. You should strive to handle directly only those things that are most profitable to your company, whether that means meeting with the Board and defending your department’s budget, juggling million-dollar projects, or developing new marketing strategies.

A C-Suite executive also needs an Executive Assistant: not just to insulate them from the rest of the company, but to take on all the administrative tasks that come with an executive position. This is another form of delegation, if a very specialized one, and the EA isn’t just a glorified secretary. Like a chief of staff in the military, the EA takes on those aspects of the executive’s job which require specialized knowledge but minimal authority, as well as any housekeeping tasks required of the position: liaising between departments, organizing special events, research, information gathering, coordination of special projects…and, of course, handling the executive’s schedule, and acting as the gate-guard who limits access to their employer’s time.

It all comes back to Scheduling.