I’ve been so fortunate to work with some fantastic leaders in my coaching practice: highly valued at their organizations, they typically are high-achievers with big roles. These leaders typically want to make a difference, and are often the first to raise a hand to take on a new project or problem. The downside of this drive? Time to think, and time devoted to the Important but not Urgent.
The Urgent has gained power that is unprecedented in our history. Fueled by technology, constant access, the demands of competition, and our always-on twitter feed, our attention is swamped by urgent demands. Leaders cannot realistically ignore the urgent: email must be read, employee issues addressed, and boss phone calls must be answered. However, the increasing focus on urgent issues means something must slip; Important (but not urgent) tends to be the area we put off for another day (which rarely comes).
When was the last time you reflected on your business or your team, with no distractions?
When did you have your last breakthrough, creative idea?
Many of my clients find these moments when they finally step away – on vacation (or in the shower!). What’s the risk of waiting for your rare break to indulge in Important work? Is this a trade-off that will deliver the results you need in the long run?
Broken businesses often force leaders to address both urgent (to stay in business) and important (to stay in business long-term). I’m impressed with Marvin R. Ellison, CEO of J.C. Penney, and his ability to make decisions that are necessary for today, while looking aggressively toward the future. JCP delivered positive EBIT for the first time in five years in 2016 (urgent), while exploring new business opportunities including home remodeling (important). The “urgent” focus was not without pain, as J.C. Penney has been forced to close stores, affecting employees and customers. If previous leaders had devoted the right balance of priorities to both urgent and important, the business might have navigated the path to the future with grace instead of pain.
You remember the feeling of looking through binoculars: you suddenly are blind to the nearby, wholly focused on the distant. Putting yourself in that focused, forward-looking state can unlock the thinking that will lead to Important ideas. Truly important thinking may require more than just turning off your phone. Get yourself out of the urgent zone by physically separating: come in to work an hour late, and spend that time somewhere that helps you think.
Here are a few questions to ponder:
What Important opportunity can you see if you look only forward?
What will be different in five years? What needs to happen today to enable that future?
What legacy are you leaving for your successor?
If you took over this business tomorrow, what would you change?
What is your best competitor missing that you can exploit?
What are your customers thinking?
Which employee would benefit the most from your support?
What Urgent task can you delay, avoid or ignore?
Where are you spending your time that is a poor investment for the future?
What areas are truly Urgent, and require your effort?
Leaders who learn this balance between Important and Urgent will lead us to the future while protecting the present. Your focus and balanced leadership are needed more than ever to navigate a rapidly changing world. I can’t wait to hear your next big idea!
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