|The Leading Source for Global News and Information Covering the Ecosystem of High Productivity Computing / October 6, 2006|
Here's something that virtually no one will ever tell you. I don't think anyone ever told me this, either, but I've found time and again that when I make real progress I'm following this rule: don't do everything on your list. My rule of thumb is that 85 percent of all the things I have to do in a year only contribute 15 percent to my overall success.
Now let me say right off that you've got to be wise about how you apply this one. And if you are just starting your career you might be wise to holster this technique until you've got some feel for what matters and what doesn't. Also, early in your career the ratios are different. They are a little less skewed because you have far fewer tasks when you are first starting out and your sphere of influence is much smaller. As you advance, however, the ratio skews clearly in this direction.
I deal with at least six hundred emails a week. There are meetings with my direct reports and with my supervisors' reports, meetings with people in the VIP seats in my chain of command, and meetings with various staff in the HPC center who need decisions made that cannot be delegated down the chain of command. Then there are the unscheduled meetings to deal with HPC system crashes, customer assistance emergencies, human resources issues, and so on. And on, and on.
The farther you rise in an organization, the more you are responsible for a dazzling array of truly mundane tasks. These things need doing; they are the glue that holds organizations together. But it is very easy to spend all of your time simply caring for and feeding these tasks. It is also very unwise. To see why, consider an organization in which managers and leaders do only these things. Innovation and productivity would plummet, and the organization would eventually collapse upon itself under the weight of its own bureaucracy like some kind of giant corporate black hole.
So, what do you do? Less.
But which less will make you a star and which will get you fired? That's a little tougher. The answer is that it varies from organization to organization, and you're just going to have to figure out by trial and error which things you can safely avoid altogether, which you can skip sometimes, and which you'll just have to knuckle down and get done.
What things do I avoid altogether? There is a report or two that I routinely just don't do -- no one notices. I have one less time pirate to deal with, and an extra 40 hours a quarter to do what I'm actually supposed to do. Other things I skip only sometimes, like meetings. For example, we have a meeting that happens once every two weeks and generally goes about three hours. I don't feel comfortable abandoning these meetings altogether because they represent an important opportunity for the members of the team to see one another (we are scattered over the country) and to make sure that broad policy decisions are taken with input from everyone. But from time to time I send someone else.
Some things though I just can't get around -- they need doing all the time. Even with these things, however, I (and you) should search for the items that need doing but that don't necessarily need doing by me. These things can be delegated.
When I pick things to not do, I'm making a decision that I feel is for the ultimate good of my organization. This is my decision, and no one else's. My organization and its leadership do not sanction my work avoidance. Sometimes I pick the wrong thing not to do and people yell. When this happens, I accept responsibility and hold only myself accountable for the trouble that results. There are two sides to leadership. The fun side is making decisions and making things happen. The unpleasant side is that you have to be willing to be accountable when you make a bad decision.
West is the director of a Top 20 supercomputing center and author of The Only Trait of a Leader (www.onlytraitofaleader.com), a book and blog about leadership and career skills for technology professionals. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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