Situation: A CEO is building a new company. She has a small, highly qualified team, and much of the work is hands-on. In addition, there is fund raising to support the venture. The CEO also makes time for exercise and keeping in shape. With all of this on her plate she is getting overwhelmed. How do you focus on priorities in an early stage company? How do you make time for priorities?
Advice from the CEOs:
Maintain your exercise and health – this makes everything else easier.
Decide on your strategic platform. This creates a larger conceptual framework and helps to clarify priorities.
Identify the gating items. Focus effort here and spend scarce resources strategically to push your goal.
Within your gating items, identify the factors that make you scalable. Focus most of your effort here.
Create a weekly focus.
Lay out your to-do list in a Covey quadrant – most and least important vs. urgent and not urgent. Review this weekly to eliminate or delegate less important priorities.
Operational issues are usually symptoms – identify the causes and fix them.
Daily, list what you’ve done. Look back every 1-2 weeks and assess how you spent your time. Eliminate time wasters.
Don’t let you passion be undermined by the drudgery.
As an early stage company, you have to react – understand and appreciate that some aspects of early stage company life will not be very strategic.
Fix things rather than adding people and complexity. This compliments Fisher’s Stages of Growth recommendations for a company of under 11 people.
Situation: A company has had one primary focus for the last few years. They are now developing another capability which takes significant attention from the CEO. How do you balance multiple foci, while maintaining a balance with family life? How do you balance multiple businesses?
Advice from the CEOs:
Find people you trust and delegate – ask them for help. Give them lots of leeway – just ask for updates.
Prioritize your weeks – big boulders and small rocks – decide weekly how you will focus. A week is a good planning time frame.
Identify and come to grips with your situation – the brutal facts – this will help you to prioritize.
Set boundaries based on time, relationships, priority – have realistic expectations of what you can accomplish. Set others’ expectations on when you will respond to their calls, emails, etc.
Compartmentalize your time for full concentration and focus. Focus on one thing at a time instead of multi-tasking.
Eliminate non-value added “stuff.”
Avoid letting others impose their schedules onto yours.
Use exercise time to refresh your endorphins, clear your head and give you time to reflect on priorities.
Situation: A CEO is involved in a number of outside Boards and organizations, both because this involvement helps the company, and for personal reasons. Recent changes in family demands are now prompting reconsideration of this level of involvement. How do you prioritize demands on your time?
Advice from the CEOs:
List all of your priorities – both business and personal – and the amount of time that they require on a weekly or monthly basis. For non-family activities, rate each in terms of importance both to your organization, and to your heart.
Decide how many outside Boards or organizations you are willing to participate in and how many hours of the week or month you are willing to allocate to this.
Reduce your involvement in outside boards and organizations so that you get the time commitment down to what you are willing to allocate. Thereafter, to maintain control of your time. If you add a new commitment, drop an existing commitment.
Where you have commitments that are important to the company, but lower priority in terms of your own passion, delegate representation to good people within your company. This both maintains company presence and enhances their professional growth.
Where you want to terminate involvement let the organization know of your plans in advance, and negotiate a phase out schedule and timeline. They will appreciate your working with them.
Consider putting someone between you and your calendar to communicate with those making new requests for your time. This person can say no more easily than you can.
Situation: A company is enjoying a good year and is busy both adding new business and serving current clients. However, the CEO finds that when business is good he doesn’t have time to focus on all of his initiatives. This frustrates him. How do you make time for initiatives?
Advice from the CEOs:
How extensive is your To-Do List? If you have two or three major, time consuming initiatives, and a host of small tasks, prioritize both categories. Focus on what you can do given the time you have available. Put lower priority on the smaller tasks, and delegate as much as you can, or put them off until things slow down. This will help deal with your frustrations.
Block out time for yourself.
Do this early in the day, before you have lots of distractions on your desk.
Allocate 1-2 hours early in the morning, and get to work a little later. Let you staff know that you are not to be disturbed unless it’s an emergency, but that they will have your full attention when you get to the office.
Plan you initiatives, segment them into smaller pieces, and schedule them.
Use Mindmapping to segment them, or a piece of software like MindManager to assist your thinking.
Among the segmented pieces, look for opportunities to delegate to free up your time and involve staff in the initiative.
Develop a Task List in Feature/Deliverables terms with a broad timeframe.
Prioritize and build into your Quarterly and Annual plans.
Situation: The CEO of a high tech company has been working long hours, and has had no time for himself, or even for much sleep during the past few months. As is typical in a small company, the CEO and everyone else wears many hats. What have you done to successfully fit in time for yourself?
Advice from the CEOs:
Take a calendar, and mark all of your time for several weeks to a month. Then look at the ways that you spend time and prioritize them into categories:
Life – eating, sleeping, etc.
Must do – mission critical
Must do – could possibly delegate
See how many of the “Must do” activities you can delegate or otherwise handle and recategorize this time into Life or Free Time. You may be amazed at how much more efficiently you can use your time. Ask all employees to do this every 90 days to assure that they are utilizing their work time effectively.
If you have long commutes or lots of travel time, get an extended battery for your laptop. This will allow you to make travel time more productive.
Or, if you have a long commute, hire a semi-retired driver to drive you to and from work. Turn your commute time into productive work time.
Semi-retired drivers are available for as little as $10 per hour. You can pay them $1,000 at a time in advance, and the driver keeps a log of the time spent driving the client.
Use your car, or the driver’s car and if the latter, reimburse the driver for mileage.
To make this work effectively set the rule that you are the client, and not looking for conversation. You want to accomplish as much work as possible during the trip.
Look for professional drivers, with the proper licensing. Do an MVR check on the driver’s history as part of your evaluation process.
Situation: A company is enjoying a good year both adding new business and serving current clients. When business is good the CEO finds it difficult to focus on all of his initiatives. This is frustrating. How do you maintain focus on your top initiatives when it gets really busy?
Advice from the CEOs:
When times are good, many new opportunities arise. If you have too many initiatives, you lose focus and have difficulty achieving them. Limit your initiatives to 2-3 at a time, focus on them, get them done and done right. Then pick your next 2-3 most important initiatives.
Schedule time for your initiatives on your calendar. Honor this time commitment just as you would an important customer appointment.
You might try a daily prioritized list of 4-5 small things and one big thing and focus on these for the day. Keep track of other priorities on a separate To-Do List.
Hire an assistant to whom you can delegate the small things – including the background research on your big initiatives. This gives you more time to focus on the big things, and the important decisions within the bigger projects.
Create a planning calendar for your initiatives. Assess each initiative for level of effort required, determine specific deliverables, and the amount of time that it will take to complete the initiative. Next, prioritize the list and take on a small number at any one time. This will help you both to complete the initiatives that you start, and to complete more of them in a given time period.
Interview with G.K. Sally Solis-Cohen, President, CEO Intronet
Situation: An early stage company is simultaneously undergoing geographic expansion and broadening its network to include new audiences. This mandates finding the right people to run the new opportunities while staying focused on existing operations. How do you stay focused on core operations while building new opportunities?
Advice from Sally Solis-Cohen:
First and foremost, understand your own limitations. Know what you can do, what you can’t, and delegate what you can’t do. This means choosing the right people to whom you can delegate important initiatives. As a start-up you have few people to whom you can delegate. Make sure that they see the opportunity as you do and have the skill and personality sets to handle their responsibilities. The choices that you make in selecting your core team will be critical to your success.
Make sure that your team talks back to you – your need their perspective and feedback, especially when their perspective differs from your own. Listen openly to their ideas. At the same time listen to your customers; they will keep you focused on your business and marketing plans. Focus more on listening, thinking and doing than speaking.
Have a very clear set of priorities and a to-do list. Focus on your A priorities. Delegate the rest. When you’re growing it doesn’t double your work, it quadruples it with travel and extra distractions.
Stay focused on your core value proposition. Keep reminding yourself why you started the business. Observe the validation that you receive from your customers and users. Live your value proposition.
If you are talking to nay-sayers, you’re talking to the wrong people. Surround yourself with positive people who are heading in the same direction that you are and who can present alternate points of view in a positive tone.