Brandt on Leadership -- Priority, Schmiority

Feb. 10, 2008
Understanding the who-do voodoo of to-do.

Congrats on the new job! You're really going places now (or, maybe everybody else turned this, er, challenge down). Either way, you've got lots of new responsibilities and you'll be busier than ever -- which means you'll need to revisit how you manage priorities. Fortunately, recent advances in both leadership theory and technology have created a variety of good options for you, including:

Utter Panic. An old standby for any new job, as you realize how thoroughly unqualified you really are and what an enormous mess your predecessor has left on your new desk. Pros: Sheer terror may inspire you to new heights of creativity, productivity and demonstrations of managerial stamina. If anybody's actually watching, you might even get promoted out of this hellhole. Cons: Overwhelming stress of being completely disorganized will likely render you dumb as a stump at work and irritable as a badger with a rash at home. Overreaction to every perceived slight may get you fired and cost you your marriage. Upshot: Don't.

Dump Everything on a Subordinate Who Actually Knows What He/She Is Doing. Another old-fashioned option now available only at the VP level or above. Breathe a sigh of relief as that pile of unanswered memos and half-baked proposals thuds onto Smith's desk, leaving yours clean and shiny as the hood of the new Porsche you'll be test-driving this afternoon while Smith digs out. Pros: If Smith's any good, you'll look like a genius. If not, fire him. Why should you be blamed for all the incompetents your predecessor hired? Cons: If Smith is as good as you hope, a rival VP may hire him away. Or, worse yet, unmask you for the empty suit you really are. Upshot: It sure beats doing it yourself. Mitigate risk by giving Smith a bad review (he can now be painted as "disgruntled") and making sure that his cubicle can only be found with a trail of bread crumbs.

Compulsive Legal Pad Scribbling. A time-tested method that reduces the stress of an enormous workload by compiling every discrete task into a neatly written list that can, in theory, be prioritized and delegated. Pros: Gives the impression to you and employees alike that you're on top of things, and may even prevent oversights caused by memory overload. List can be "accidentally" lost if it becomes too lengthy, with subsequent recreation omitting noxious or boring tasks. Cons: Rewriting list each morning will consume a growing portion of workday, limiting actual productivity. Accurately scoped list will likely be so massive and impossible as to induce guilt and depression in user, further reducing effectiveness. Upshot: Buy a PDA.

Desperate Purchases of Technology. In no area of managerial life has there been more progress than in the application of technology to the age-old problem of prioritization anxiety. Numerous options exist, including:

  • E-mail. Pros: You'll never lose a To-Do again if you leave all requests or project updates in your Inbox as reminders. Cons: The IT department gets pretty cranky when you have 5,714 Inbox e-mails (with attachments) clogging up the server.
  • Personal Digital Assistant or Smartphone. Pros: You'll look important as you spend every waking moment tapping on a small electronic brick while life passes you by. Cons: Carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritic thumb joints and increased risk of accidental death (car crash, falling piano) while focused on 2-inch screen.
  • Project Management Software. Pros: Celebrate the UberNerd in all of us by creating complex, colorful Gannt charts that inspire awe across the corporation. Cons: Software resembles nothing so much as prioritization porn. Once you remove the shrink wrap, you will never, ever get any real work done again.

Upshot: Automating your lack of progress on key issues is unlikely to advance your career. Focus instead a single task: Figure out where boss drinks martinis.

With the right priority, you'll be a VP in no time.

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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