By Tamara McLendon –
There’s a saying among business owners and executives that it’s important to find time to work on your business, not just in your business.
It’s especially problematic, I think, for professional services business owners. They are usually subject matter experts who started as sole practitioners, then hired staff to help out with administrative tasks or deliverables, but who still spend much their days doing the work of it.
For Harvey and I, that means that Harvey still fights against the tide of technical work, and I still get lost in the weeds on bookkeeping or basic HR tasks. You might be faced with different sorts of tasks as an attorney, doctor, accountant, or financial services professional, but the basic issue is the same – how do you carve out time for the bigger picture when you’re still responsible for so much of the day-to-day minutia?
I can’t speak for Harvey, but I’ve found three particular strategies to be the most useful.
Daily Areas of Focus
I only started using this method recently, thanks to a suggestion from my mentor and friend, Kathy Atkins at The Lattitude Group. I was seeking a solution to this exact issue: How do I ensure that I’m spending enough time moving my big-picture goals forward, rather than floundering in a sea of daily tasks?
She suggested that I think about assigning an area of focus or type of work to each day of the week, on a recurring schedule. It so happened that the five days of each work week was a perfect fit for categories of work, but I played around with two-week cycles, and even a weird and disturbing 9-day cycle that left me in worse shape than I started.
Each morning, I start with three things: My calendar, my to-do list, and my area of focus for the day. For example, today is Thursday, which is Processes Day. I will make sure to complete my calendared and dated Next Actions (like writing this blog post), but will then move on to examining and revising the organization of our standard operating procedures for the areas of finance, marketing, and HR.
Tomorrow, Friday, is Research & Strategy Day. I’m planning to read the next two chapters in Blue Ocean Strategy and review our business, sales, and marketing plans to pull out any logical Next Actions.
I know what specific tasks I’ll be working on ahead of time because as I scan my to-do list and projects list, I pull out a couple of high-priority items within the appropriate area of focus and make them my have-to’s for the day.
By giving each day a theme in this way, I’m ensuring that I’m not allowing my time to be controlled by the squeaky wheels of my day. Instead, I’m in control of where I want my time to be spent, and I’m actively directing my time toward projects that will have a long-term impact on our business.
It does beg the question, though. What do you do when this intentional focus on strategy threatens to push aside the necessary day-to-day tasks you would otherwise be doing? How can you be sure you’re allocating your time properly, and how to do you know you really do need to delegate?
Functional Org Chart
Typical organizational charts include one box for each staff person and simply show the position of that individual in the group, and who they report to. It’s a missed opportunity to show the actual work that needs to be done, and who is accountable for it.
Our org chart has one box for each area of responsibility, not each person, and as a small company, that means each person may occupy more than one box.
Our Support Desk staffers are accountable to doing good IT support work. That’s it. Therefore, each person is represented by a single box.
Systems Engineers, however, split their time between escalated IT support and proactive project work. They are represented in two boxes – one in the Service Desk and one in the Projects department. But now they, in essence, have two bosses. How can they determine how much time they spend in each role? Well, right there in the Service Desk box it says “30 hours” and in the Projects box it says “10 hours.”
At the management and executive level, the same thing applies, with even more boxes. One of our managers splits his time between being our Systems Manager (5h), our Support Desk Manager (10h), and a Systems Engineer 3 who works on both Service (10h) and Projects (10h). Each role is given a set number of hours and if he notices that the balance of work is shifting, he considers whether it’s a time management problem, or if the needs of the position are changing. Maybe it’s time to shuffle responsibilities or adjust our Systems strategy. It’s a starting point for discussion with his direct manager and with the leadership team as a whole. The functional org chart has given us a tool to recognize it and then act.
In my role, I’m the President (15h), the CFO (10h), the HR Contact (5h), the Marketing Director (5h), and the Bookkeeper (5h). Each of those roles gets a certain number of hours each month and defined set of responsibilities. If I’m supposed to spend just 5 hours per week on bookkeeping, but am really spending 15, that eats away at all of those other areas.
In my Weekly Review, I look at my boxes on the org chart, evaluating whether the way I’m actually spending my time matches up with the ideal. If not, why is that? Has one particular area grown unwieldy? Could we automate or streamline, or do we need additional staff? Am I just dodging areas that are harder to wrap my head around?
We encourage everyone to do the same in their regular reviews of their own performance and goals. It’s a great way to set expectations and address potential issues between employees and their managers.
If you go through this exercise and find that an ideal allocation of time would have you spending 10 hours or more of your time each week on strategic projects with long-term impact, but the reality is that you rarely spend more than 3 hours, you have some thinking to do about why, and some actions to take to resolve it.
Identifying the problem is great, but developing and executing a solution is another thing entirely. The strategic projects are rarely things that have a hard deadline, or someone else who will give you dirty looks if you don’t make it a priority.
They’re self-inflicted tasks, and those are always the first to get tossed aside when anything more interesting or seemingly more urgent shows up. Staying on-task is a challenge when you may be the only one who notices that it’s not getting done.
That’s one of the biggest reasons we have a relationship with a strategic business consultant, the aforementioned Kathy Atkins. Yes, she’s an expert in finance, and operations, and staffing, and all the other things we need her expertise on. But even if all we got from her was the accountability on execution, it would still be worth every dime.
For staffers, they have built-in accountability already. Presumably, they have to walk into a meeting with you or their direct manager and report on their progress. But who’s meeting do you walk into with your report? You’re the boss, and owing yourself a progress report isn’t nearly as compelling as owing it to someone else who doesn’t even work for you.
We started our year-long engagement with The Lattitude Group with a series of meetings to determine our strategic projects and assignments that would get us where we want to go in the long term. Then, each month, we walk into that meeting room (or, video conference in, for those of us who are based in another state) with an update on what we’ve done so far, what obstacles we’re facing, and what we plan to do about it.
It creates an urgency and accountability to projects that, in truth, can be done any time. Or never.
One of those projects was the creation of the functional org chart. That’s the kind of thing we could have managed without, but not nearly as well. I was personally tasked with formulating a new budget building and tracking process. Yes, we could have hobbled along with the old system, but the new one is much better. It was challenging enough and required enough deep digging from me that I’m confident I would have put it off as long as I could.
But I had to walk into that room with Kathy and the rest of the team, and I didn’t want to be the one who hadn’t accomplished my task.
You have to choose your third-party accountability person carefully. They have to be flexible enough that, when you find a way to improve or change the project that truly is for the better, they’ll allow it. But they have to be tough enough that, if you stroll in there with half-baked deliverables or excuses, they’ll call you out. In front of your staff, if necessary.
Thankfully, Kathy is exactly that person for us. She holds us accountable, but also gives us room to evolve the plan if needed. She absolutely holds us all accountable, including me and my business partner. We get no slack just because we write the checks.
I said I had three ways to address this issue. But I actually have three ways that have actually been put into practice. There’s a fourth one that we’re just on the verge of trying out. And it’s scary one.
One of these big strategic projects we identified was to remove Harvey and I from the day-to-day operations as much as possible. And each project needs to have a measurable outcome.
How do you know if you’ve successfully removed yourself from the business? You walk away.
It needs to be for a long enough period of time that it’s a really good test. So, we’re stepping away for three weeks this summer. This post will probably be scheduled to go live while we’re incognito, so I won’t even be allowed to check that it went up the way it was supposed to.
The staff will have authority to act independently in all things. We’ve cross-trained in everything we can think of. We’ve documented every issue that’s come up since we started planning this nine months ago. We’ve hired more staff to ensure that we never have coverage issues.
But there are going to be unpredictable issues. I’m guessing we’ll come back to a list of gaps they’ve identified in our documentation and processes, which will make their way onto someone’s to-do list.
We also have a release valve. Harvey’s writing a document that formalizes where the line is between “Use your judgement,” and “This is the Doomsday. Please contact me.” In the unlikely circumstance where it truly threatens the company’s long-term success or would cause an unacceptable level of customer hardship, they are authorized to contact us for advice.
But that’s where it ends. We are not authorized to do any of the actual work ourselves.
My hope is that three weeks is long enough to weaken our old work patterns. The rest of the management team will continue own the day-to-day operations, and Harvey and I will come back to newly focused positions that are almost exclusively strategic in nature.
I have complete faith that the staff is ready for it. It’s really a matter of whether Harvey and I are ready to let go. We’ll see. I’ll write a post on our return that talks about what we learned.
That’s four ways in total to carve out the time to work strategically. The next post is going to dove-tail nicely into this one. Sales Engineer Nick Wiley is going to write about a way to spend all that strategic time you’re carving out – developing and participating in your business’s technology strategy. It’s about time we talked about technology in this technology company blog!