EVERY LEADER’S DILEMMA: TIME! Four ways to be strategic about time
Feeling time poor? Of course you are, you’re a leader! Time’s a constant leadership problem in schools. There’s never enough of it, too much to do at once, impossible deadlines, and so on. This can be a daily reality for school leaders, causing them stress, frustration, and feeling helpless about what to do.
While, alas, there’s no silver bullet in sight to solve the problem of time in schools, a certainty is there’s no more of it coming your way any time soon! In my leadership coaching work, and as a response, I approach time as a strategic resource for school leaders to use like any other precious resource. It requires careful allocation, efficient and effective use, explicit alignment to desired outcomes, and respecting it’s not in limitless supply.
Here are four ways for school leaders to think about and treat time as a strategic resource. Some are practical (you could do them tomorrow), while others are long term (you need a plan) and might require external guidance to implement well. Whatever you decide to do or not do, doing nothing isn’t an option if you’re feeling ‘under the pump’ in your leadership work!
Strategy 1: Get monkeys off your back
Leaders spend too much time accepting other people’s problems, writes Kenneth Blanchard in The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. This becomes a heavy burden, both in time lost and stress gained. Soon, people expect and depend on their leader(s) to tackle and solve their problems. This dependency on a leader discourages and disempowers others to take responsibility for facing-up to and dealing with their problems. As well, it results in a leader’s stress, crippling workload, distraction from core work, and grumbling about how the problem was dealt with from the person who dumped it on the leader!
Blanchard says this dependency is akin to a leader’s back is overburdened with leaping monkeys. When a person comes to you with a problem and you agree to accept it, the monkey leaps off their back and on to your back. Each problem you accept from another person is one more monkey on your back, it clings on and won’t let go until you do what it wants. At the end of day you stagger out the door with multiple monkeys on your back. No wonder you feel exhausted, frustrated and probably downright resentful!
Keeping monkeys off
Keep monkeys off your back by not accepting other people’s problems. Help them to solve their own problems. How? Don’t invite a person with an on-the-spot problem to sit down. Hold a short stand-up conversation, ask them to tell you what their problem is, what they’ve done about it so far, what else they could do, and if they want your suggestions. Together, decide what they’ll do and invite them to come back to see you if those actions are ineffective. You’re encouraging and empowering the other person to deal with their problems. You do the same when the next problem arrives at your door.
Strategy 2: Enter the matrix
The time management matrix helps leaders become aware of where they spend their on-the-job time. Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People provides a four quadrant matrix: Quadrant 1 is ‘both urgent and important’; Quadrant 2 is ‘not urgent yet important’; Quadrant 3 is ‘urgent but not important’; Quadrant 4 is ‘not urgent and not important’. Many leaders spend much of their working time in Quadrants 3 and 4. These are ‘busy’ leaders who don’t effectively lead their organisation to achieve priority goals or their people to reach potential. They’re too ‘busy’ doing low-impact things.
Effective and influential leaders spend most time in Quadrant 2. This includes identifying strategic opportunities, thinking preventively to manage risks, dealing effectively and efficiently with complex problems, careful long-range planning, having clear intended outcomes, and explicit measures of high-impact.
Leaders can increase their time in Quadrant 2 in five ways, individually or as a leadership team. First, a self-assessment over a week or two to see how much time you currently spend in each quadrant. Record at the end of each day approximate hours spent in each quadrant. Second, look at your recorded data to identify patterns of where you spend your time and possible reasons for what you see. Third, decide what you can do to increase your time in Quadrant 2 and decrease your time in the other quadrants, particularly Quadrants 3 and 4. Fourth, write a brief plan to implement your actions and how you’ll monitor your progress. Fifth, repeat the above four steps each quarter for a year and plan to adjust the use of your time accordingly.
Click here to access a time management matrix I’ve developed for school leaders to use for their self-assessment.
Strategy 3: Put your rocks in a jar
Leaders can sacrifice their own well-being to support and protect the well-being of others. This results in burn out, loss of personal time, negative impact on personal relationships and health, and more. To effectively lead a school or any organisation it’s of utmost importance a leader has a healthy work-life balance. If a leader’s exhausted and their personal life under siege, this is not good for the person, their family or the organisation.
Me, me, me!
Leaders should include personal time in their weekly plan. By writing it in, there’s less risk it won’t happen! Just as you make and keep appointments with other people, you learn to make and keep appointments with and for yourself. Similarly, you only break or cancel a self- appointment if there’s an emergency. Your self-appointments might include watching a favourite TV programme, reading for leisure, going to the gym or for a walk, family time, and so on.
Jar, rocks and sand
A way to think about protecting personal time is the empty jar metaphor. Regard each next week as your ‘empty jar’ into which you place your ‘rocks’. The first rock is your ‘personal rock’. The next rocks are your ‘work rocks’, giving priority to Quadrant 2 (above). There are only so many rocks a jar can hold, so each week you need to prioritise your priorities. After placing the rocks in your jar, the spaces between them are for your ‘sand’. This is your time remaining for other matters that are not such a high priority (Quadrants 1 and 3, above).
Strategy 4: Be a blue ocean leader
The Blue Ocean Strategy Institute in Fontainebleau, France, is interested in how leaders bring out the best in people to achieve organisation-wide priority goals. A model and strategies have been developed to help leaders release the ‘blue ocean’ of potential talent and energy in their organisations, and rapidly. Blue ocean leadership focuses on the particular acts and activities leaders need to undertake to boost motivation and get results.
Low and high value acts and activities
Blue ocean leadership asks people for direct input on how leaders at all levels in their organisation are currently holding them back and what these leaders could do to help people do their best. The result is almost always eye-opening. Between 20% to 40% of current acts and activities of leaders are deemed of questionable value. It’s also common to find that leaders are underinvesting time in 20% to 40% of acts and activities interviewees cite as important. Executive leaders are usually spending insufficient time on the core leadership work of critical thinking, identifying opportunities and gearing-up their organisation for success.
Cold spots and hot spots
Blue ocean leaders identify their ‘cold spots’ (acts and activities absorbing time but adding little or no value) and their ‘hot spots’ (acts and activities motivating and inspiring others to apply their talents to strategic priorities). They identify and chart their ‘as-is’ current leadership and their ‘to-be’ future leadership for all leadership levels. Joint decisions are made on which acts and activities should be eliminated, reduced, raised and created. Blue ocean leaders don’t alter who they are. They change the tasks that leaders carry out across all levels of leadership in the organisation to inspire and help people give their best.
Leaders can be inefficient in how they use time. They may spend too much time on acts and activities that are relatively unproductive and hold people back from doing their best. Time is a strategic resource for leaders to use efficiently and effectively in ‘hot spot’ acts and activities to get desired results. Blue ocean leaders are intentional and deliberate in prioritising how leaders at all levels in the organisation use their time.
Blue Ocean Leadership is a business-context model and strategies. However, the concept is highly relevant to time-pressed school leaders. You can find out more at www.blueoceanstrategy.com
Blanchard, K. (1999). The one minute manager meets the monkey. New York: Harper Collins.
Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Kim, W.C., & Mauborgne, R. (2014). Blue ocean leadership. Harvard Business Review, May 2014, 60-72.