A CEO asked for my advice on how to manage his time during a peak. Faced with a 4-week project that is important had has fixed timeline that cannot be changed, the CEO found himself in so many meetings, that he did not have enough time to dedicate to the project, and more importantly, he didn’t have enough headspace. How can the CEO (or: any other professional) manage his (her/their) time during a peak period, to avoid this situation?
Let’s start with the simple answer, and then dive into the complexity. As is the case with many consulting questions, often the answer can be described using a simple diagram, yet the devil is in the detail of the implementation.
In the case of the CEO, most of his time was spent on meetings. So we’ll take this case as an example to explain how to manage time.
The simple diagram is a two-by-two matrix, where the CEO categorizes all his meetings into four categories, based on two criteria:
- Is the meeting important?
- Is the meeting urgent?
Simple, right? But the devil is in the detail, remember? So let’s examine how to use the matrix.
In this blog article we use the term “meeting” but you can generalize it to any activity.
Which meetings are important?
You may reason that every initiative that you work on is probably important, in the sense that it will generate value. On top of that, people tend to think that what they do is important, because of their ego. But when faced with a peak period, you need to have stricter criteria for what’s important.
Under the assumption that every meeting to which the CEO is invited creates value (and thus: cannot by definition be labelled as “unimportant”), and given that a CEO’s role is often not to produce artefacts but to oversee the process, and make key decisions, my advice for the CEO is as follows. At times of peak workload, a meeting is only important for the CEO if the meeting will fail to achieve its purpose without the presence of the CEO. If the other meeting participants are capable of doing the job without the CEO, the meeting is no longer important for the CEO, based on this approach. So I asked the CEO to consider for each and every meeting: can it achieve its purpose without his presence?
Also this question is not always straightforward. Sometimes, for the team to realize the goal without the CEO, the CEO may need to delegate some responsibility (e.g. decision power) or accept that the team makes a different decision than he would have made. If the CEO can live with this situation, my advice is: do it! The meeting is no longer labelled as important.
Which meetings are urgent?
The question which meetings are urgent is easier to answer. A meeting is urgent if delaying the meeting means breaching a deadline/timeline, such that damage is created. Also in this case, there is room for interpretation, because sometimes damage may be created, yet the damage is acceptable for the CEO. To keep things simple, we’ll then label these cases as not urgent.
How to use the matrix?
By labelling all the meetings as important or unimportant, and as urgent or not urgent, we create a matrix of four categories.
Important and urgent meetings
It almost goes without saying: these are the top priorities for the CEO. Attend these meetings. But what to do if most of your meetings are important and urgent? Normally this would imply that something went wrong in your time management process. Here’s my advice:
- Go through the list of meetings again, and reflect whether you have classified the meetings correctly as important and urgent. If not, change their classification.
- If most of your meetings are indeed important and urgent, this may be a sign that you are not delegating enough, or that your team lacks senior team members that are able to make important decisions. This can be the case in a small organization that is growing in the scope of its activities, yet lagging behind in hiring senior people that should take over responsibilities from the owner/ CEO. If this is the case, use the opportunity to give more decision power and responsibility to your team members. This will free up your time, because some of your meetings will no longer be classified as important for you.
Important but not urgent meetings
At times of a peak, a meeting that is important but nut urgent should be postponed. If at some point (even still during the peak) there are not many meetings that are important and urgent (as unlikely as this may sound), this category will be the second priority.
An alternative to postponing the meeting is to use the same judgment as mentioned above. Ask yourself whether you can delegate such a meeting to someone else. Maybe your presence is required in the meeting because you have not delegated enough? Learning to delegate is very hard, especially for “control freaks”. But it’s worth the effort! Once you’ve learned to delegate, and you are no longer losing sleep “because things might get wrong if I do not do it myself”, life becomes so much better.
Urgent but not important meetings
Generally saying, you should not attend a meeting that is not important, even if the meeting is urgent. Namely, if the meeting can be successful without you, you’re not needed there, irrespective of its urgency. In some cases, you may still want to do so, e.g. to mitigate a potential risk that a required decision is not made by the team. But during a peak time, you cannot afford this luxury, and you do not attend meetings that are urgent yet not important. The key here is that the CEO only needs to verify that the mission has been accomplished by the team (a simple yes/no question), but not be part of the process of accomplishing the mission.
Neither urgent nor important meetings
The title suggests that these meetings should not happen at all. But this is incorrect. We classified “important” as requiring the CEO’s presence (or: your presence). A meeting can still be important for the company, if it is not important for you. And therefore, sometimes you may still want to participate in such meetings, although strictly unnecessarily. For example, for the sake of social cohesion in the team. But at times of peak workload, you do not attend these meetings.
Critical Success Factors for Time management
The matrix, by itself, is very simple. I’ll describe a few critical success factors, based on my experience.
The first challenge is classifying the meetings honestly. People are ego-driven creatures, and often enough they think that whatever they do is important, and whatever they do cannot be done without them. Wrong. Nobody is irreplaceable, and everyone does both important and unimportant things. That’s the beauty of being a human being: you’re flawed by definition, and that’s also your strength. It is therefore important to have sufficient capacity for self-reflection, and critical thinking. Be honest in classifying meetings as important and/or urgent. If you see that the majority of your meetings is important and urgent, and you cannot handle the workload, there’s a good change that you can benefit from some more self-reflection.
The second challenge is in dealing with the situation of having too many important meetings. Often enough, this is the sign of insufficient delegation. Delegating responsibility to others requires trust. Trust needs to be earned. But some people find it harder than others to let go, to sleep well at night after having delegated responsibility. Note that I talk here about delegating responsibility, not just delegating work. Responsibility comes with decision power. It’s easy to delegate a “programmable” task that is so well-defined (by procedures), that the other person does not need to think; only do. It becomes much harder when delegation entails that the other person makes decisions, and these decisions may differ from your decisions, and you have to be able to accept this situation. Organizations where the senior managers do not learn to delegate as the organization grows, will fail in their growth process. The ability to delegate is one of the most important skills for a senior manager.
If these thoughts resonate with you, and you want to discuss your own situation, contact me!
Suggested reading: To be or not to become: the KPI dilemma