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On the job Skills, Relationships

When You’re told to Prioritize…

You probably wince…even a little, am I right? ‘Prioritize’ is one of those words that can be delivered in the sweetest of voices, yet can make us even a tiny bit crazy(er) when we hear it.

In the worst moments of receiving this coaching we feel a little empty; we have been given some sort of direction yet we feel directionless. There is no obvious step to take to leave us believing we can be more productive and less overwhelmed. We have tapped out our one main resource, our work-parent and now we’re left to our own fruitless devices. In our minds, we ask our boss if we then have the power to tell others we won’t able to service their needs, but we already know our chances of so bluntly shaving down our work day. Sure, you can lose weight by lopping off a limb, but it’s neither a delicate nor a smart move. There are better ways.

So now I’m here to step in and help. No, I don’t plan to provide productivity tips on shutting down your email or finding a quieter work space. There are many little nuggets out there that are both traditional and innovative in that vein. A google search should get you that content. In my blog, I strive to provide meaty solutions, new ways of thinking and genuine workplace devices to give you more control.

My (insightful?) advice comes in three options, beginning with simple/short term fixes that work their way toward the more complex and longer term. Choose one or all three to carve more time into your day and to isolate the more meaningful components of your job:

Solution #1: Ask for more detail or insight.

The best managers may proactively give this to you in a review session but I wouldn’t expect it. Many supervisors use the feedback of prioritization as almost a default directive to an overwhelmed teammate; they feel satisfied – almost proud – that they have ticked the box of effective coaching and development. Don’t let them off that easily.

During your meeting, ask for examples of bad prioritizing decisions you have made. If an answer doesn’t seem to be forthcoming turn the question onto them by asking if they have ever been faced with this issue and could they give examples of how they navigated through the challenge.  If you get nothing there either, you might just have a boss that plain wants you to figure out how to get everything done…and go away. Yay. Next step:

Ask to be able to schedule occasional and quick coaching sessions when you are in danger of becoming backlogged and require guidance. Hopefully that sort of routine interaction at least gets you somewhere. At the very least, your initiative might end up being charitable; by creating these coaching/collaboration sessions you might be in effect helping your manager hone his or her skills. One note: for those meetings, make sure you arrive prepared with some perspective to kick things off. Managers are less likely to solve the problems of people who just stare blankly at them after laying a problem at their feet.

Solution #2: Time, scope and resources.prioritize3

In this post, I elaborate on this killer efficiency and prioritization model I learned a number of years ago and utilized ever since, both in coaching and my own work situations. The insight that we know and don’t often embrace is that we do so many things out of habit; only a small amount of probing, questioning and understanding can open the door to more efficient routines.

Deadlines are frequently random. Assignments are often given at the broadest possible scope. You will commonly find there are other people, tools, systems and reports that can help accelerate your work.  Read my linked post for more detail on where to probe so you can seamlessly shift work around or do it in stages…or with help!

Solution #3: A journey deep into the company.

I’m going to challenge you in a bigger way with this last one.

I have told my teams – particularly those angling for a promotion – that a sign they are ready to do my job is that they themselves can direct the team. In other words, rather than questioning what I want they should be able to tell me what I should want…and why. That’s the goal; you want to progress from I don’t know what my boss wants to here’s what we should be doing. That’s workplace nirvana.

So how do you get there? Simple, but not so simple.

From the day you enter the company you start to network. Sure, you network to meet people but you should have two other objectives. The first is to develop your brand and use first impressions to help people understand what you’re about. That’s not for this post so I’ll focus on the second major objective. You absolutely must go on a journey to understand how the company operates. Every piece of paper you touch, every electronic file you open, every person you meet, every meeting you attend plays a role in policy and decision making that helps the company execute strategies and achieve goals. And there’s so much more that goes on that you don’t see for yourself. This is what you want to understand when you talk to people – how the pieces fit, who the players are, how does their work integrate with yours while adding value.

Those tips and tricks articles will tell you to make lists and flag those items that are important vs urgent…or to rank them by value. Here’s the catch: much of our daily work is for the sake of others or for a team – not just you. What then? What’s the importance or value…and who gets to decide? As I said, not so simple, unless you have a global understanding of your company and the ripple effect of your decision to devalue an item on your to do list.

I consider it a flag if you are experienced and you don’t know precisely why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you don’t, you’re in for a lifetime of reactionary behavior; this is no place to be if you want to maximize your impact to the company and minimize your stress.

So, get to know everyone in your work universe. Know processes, know timelines. Question people who receive your work, more out of curiosity than criticism. Suddenly, you will have a broader perspective on how you and everything you do fits. The bonus is that you’ll be able to assert yourself in how you manage your workflow, because you can now attach value to all that you do.

My leadership style takes this idea one step further in the spirit of continuous improvement. I am open about my goal of finding new things for me or my team to stop doing…or to do less. My mind goes there all the time. In my journey I have discovered reports that I created that were rarely read…or looked at much less frequently than I was creating them. I erroneously took on passion projects that were of little strategic importance to the company overall. I don’t want my teams stuck in the office doing senseless things. But if they are, I want them to be inspired by the empowerment to work on the meaningful things that drive the business.

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My final piece of advice is to be mindful of perceptions of yourself. As always, think about your brand as a teammate. Much of my advice centers around probing, asking questions, challenging. The frequency, intensity and tone of how you do this can make you an exhausting person to work with, so stay self-aware and pick your battles judiciously.

The best way to shape the right perception and make progress with my coaching is to be positive and constructive. As you approach people, make the point of revealing your interest in meeting everyone’s objectives as you search for efficiencies. Your teammates have to know that your journey is an exercise that’s as much about them as it is you, so make that balance clear. No one will challenge your desire to find efficiencies for the sake of focus on meaningful things. Be a champion of good judgment and workplace collaboration, and your journey to become efficient and prioritized will reach its destination.

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