Business Productivity: For Executives – Prioritization

“Prioritization is about doing something. It’s not about an excuse for inaction.” — Bjorn Lomborg, Danish author and business professor

“We can do anything, but we can’t do everything… at least, not at the same time. So think of your priorities not in terms of what activities you do, but when you do them. Timing is everything.” — Dan Millman, American author
“First things first, second things never.” — Shirley Conran, British editor and writer

In my most recent book, SuperCompetent (John Wiley and Sons, 2010), I identified and described six keys that anyone can use in the workplace to maximize their performance: Activity, Availability, Attention, Accessibility, Accountability, and Attitude. Recently, I’ve been considering how all six affect C-Suite executives—that is, upper-level executives like the CEO, CFO, CIO, Presidents, VPs, and Directors. What issues, concerns, and challenges do senior leaders face in these areas?

As it turns out, these concepts look a bit different at the highest levels, so the standard approaches don’t necessary apply. In many cases, even the names have to be changed. This is why, at the C-Suite level, I prefer to refer to my keys as Prioritization, Scheduling, Focus, Organization, Efficiency, and Attitude, respectively.

In this blog, the first of six in a series, I’ll take a look at the C-Suite version of Activity: Prioritization.

In general, Prioritization is the order in which you organize those things most important to you: your religion, your family, your life goals, your daily work. It’s necessary to look closely at each one, and determine which items need to come first and how everything else should follow. All these categories are important, of course, but what we’re concerned with in this venue is the business aspect of the equation.

In the work arena, Prioritization may involve several different levels of responsibility, starting with the personal Activity standards required of any effective individual: a strong sense of self-discipline, written goals, strict to-do lists, a tight focus, and a drive for efficiency, just to name a few. However, in my opinion the most significant level of C-Suite Prioritization is the order in which you prioritize your organization’s operations and projects (at least those within your bailiwick). This involves careful, long-term planning in which cost/benefit analyses, delivery timeframes, resource allocation, and similar factors have to be taken into consideration for new projects, along with the organization (and reorganization) of existing projects for which all of the above have already been taken into account.

Large-scale Prioritization is rarely a solitary exercise. While you may or may not have the authority to prioritize by fiat, in most cases the most logical method is to sit down with the high-level stakeholders of the projects at hand (Directors, VPs, etc.) and hammer out which ones need to come first and why. If nothing else, this kind of review can make it easier for the executive team up the ladder to make its final decisions, and it prepares you to spring into action once those decisions have been made.

Properly done, Prioritization will also hone your organization’s efficiency. When you sit down to prioritize, look at ways that doing so might make the work flow simpler and easier, increasing speed and profitability. Keep in mind that true prioritization is proactive, rather than reactive; that is, you prioritize ahead of time based on projected needs, rather than prioritizing on the spur of the moment because the situation forces you to. Proactive planning allows for a level of flexibility and clean efficiency that reactive prioritization lacks. It’s very difficult to take every factor into account when you’re reactive, and eventually, that inefficiency will catch up with you.

And remember, Prioritization involves more than simply choosing which items come first: you also have to deal with lower-priority items, determining where they need to fit into the work structure—or if they should fit at all. Don’t be afraid to tap subordinates when making these lower-level Prioritization decisions. While the buck should stop with you, you must be willing to delegate some decision-making power in order to a) protect yourself from being overwhelmed and making mistakes; and b) to empower the people under you, so that they can use their own creativity to solve problems. Don’t abdicate your responsibility for anything, but be sure to oversee rather than micromanage. At your level, you need to free up the time necessary to revisit your objectives consistently and rattle cages, when necessary, to move things along.

Which brings up another point about Prioritization: at some level, the requirements of executives more senior than you may take precedence over your priorities. Even if you’re at the top of the heap, a Board of Directors or stockholder group may have the final say. But it’s your responsibility to convince them of the value of specific projects, and to make recommendations regarding their priority. They may or may not listen to you, but even so you have to do the best you can to champion whatever you believe is most important for the company or organization, based on your understanding of its priorities. Once the decision has been made, however, it’s up to you to prioritize based on those higher-level decisions, whether you agree or not.