Friday, February 10, 2012

Don’t Let the Pebbles Cover the Rocks

Guest post by Great Leadership regular contributor Beth Armknecht Miller:

One of my five top leadership mistakes is the vicious spiral many leaders get sucked into: the urgent taking over the important on a continual basis.

This spiral leads to goals that are unmet or have slipped past their deadline. It causes a lack of focus for the organization as people begin to question what the real priorities are for the company. And ultimately, the success of the organization is held back and performance is limited because employees are focused on putting out fires and not preparing for the future because the future is so unclear. And, often changes are taking place externally in the market that are missed providing competitors with the advantage in the long run.

So what are the important things a leader should be focused on? And when the urgent hits you in the face, which it does to us all, what process do you have to quickly get back to the important items, which will make the difference between your company surviving and thriving?

The Important

A leader's ultimate job is to move her organization forward towards the company's long-term vision. So the important things to a company are those projects, decisions, meetings, employees, and external influences that will impact a company in getting to their long -term vision.

And we all know the urgent, an employee crisis, a problem with a customer delivery, a vendor not meeting their commitment, a key prospect requiring a quick proposal turnaround, and the list goes on and on.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with many business leaders who were very effective at managing the important versus the urgent and what I have found is three things that have made them effective.... delegation, time management, and emotional intelligence (the ability to be calm and not over react).

Effectively delegating urgent issues requires a level of trust that the person being delegated to, can be trusted to perform in a timely manner and has the necessary skills to deliver quality work. If you find yourself consistently taking on specific urgent issues, for example customer issues, then this probably means you either don't have the right person managing customer relationships or you need to develop the person so that you can offload more customer issues. Or, it may be that you have trouble letting go of control. It this is the case, ask yourself "How will I be able to grow the business if I continue to fear letting go of the comfortable and non risky tasks?"

Coaching Tip: Start documenting the type of urgent issues that are derailing the important work and look for trends. Once the trends have been identified determine who and how you can offload the urgent.

Time Management is the next critical skill to stay out of the trap of being stuck in the urgent. Many of you have heard the story of the "big rocks", I'm not sure where it originated but I first heard it from Verne Harnish of Gazelles Inc. The point of "big rocks" is that if you keep tackling the small things, the sand and pebbles, and not the important strategic items, then your pot will be full of sand and pebbles with no way of inserting a big rock. The urgent really aren't the rocks; they are like pebbles, which get caught in a bicycle's gears, which can derail a company. As a leader-manager your time should first be focused on the big rocks, and when the pebbles pop up and try to derail you spend time to reprioritize so that you can get quickly back on track to address your big rocks.

And finally, having the skill to manage your emotions in times of the urgent is critical to leadership success. Many leaders forget that they are "on stage". Their employees are always looking to them for emotional and behavioral cues. So when something or someone becomes that pebble, you need to kick up your level of emotional intelligence. Step back and think before you react.

Coaching Tip: Explore your stress triggers, what causes you to react emotionally versus logically? Once you know your triggers you can learn to manage your approach and reaction to the triggers.

So if you are tired of spending all your time fighting fires and not focused on the future, take the tips from executives who have been able to free themselves of the vicious cycle: delegate, manage your time and your emotions. And, in turn have enjoy continued growth, success and less stress.

Training tip from Dan: For an effective time management training exercise, try demonstrating the "rocks and pebbles" concept to your participants. All you need is a large jar, 3-4 rocks, a cup of pebbles, cup of sand, and bottle of water. Or, you can animate the metaphor on a PowerPoint presentation.

Beth Armknecht Miller, of Atlanta, Georgia, is Founder and President of Executive Velocity, a leadership development advisory firm accelerating the leadership success of CEOs and business leaders. She is also a Vistage Chair and Executive Coach. She is certified in Myers Briggs and Hogan leadership assessment tools and is a Certified Managerial Coach by Kennesaw State University. Visit or or follow her on twitter at SrExecAdvisor.


Jennifer V. Miller said...

Hi, Beth,

NIce post! I'm not sure who originated "rocks and pebbles"; I first read it many years ago in Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Over the years, I've used this demonstration (just like Mr. McCarthy!) to illustrate the points you make in this blog post. People really "get it" when they see this visual.

Jonathan Greene said...

Hmmm...I find it urgent that I reply to this post, but important that I write posts of my own...oh, crap. I think I just failed.

Live It Forward said...

Thanks for sharing these great tips Beth. I definitely can make use of this - Explore your stress triggers, what causes you to react emotionally versus logically? Once you know your triggers you can learn to manage your approach and reaction to the triggers. Thanks! Keep on inspiring!

Beth Armknecht Miller said...

Jennifer, I agree that visuals are very helpful in communication. And even more powerful are stories during a learning process. I attended a breakfast this morning that an executive from Southwest Airlines was the featured speaker. He shared a letter from a customer to demonstrate their laser focus on customer service. It was powerful and unforgettable!

Thanks for commenting.


Jerry Hingle said...

Nice post, Beth. I appreciate the tips you provide at the bottom of each point you make.

Beth Armknecht Miller said...

Live it forward, So often people aren't aware of their triggers that cause them to "misbehave". Learning to know when you are entering a "stress zone" and then reacting appropriately is ultimate control. And for control freaks out there, they should be the first to jump on this technique. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

dmccallum01 said...

Your post was very insightful. I really enjoyed the quote regarding what leaders ultimate goal is. “A leader’s ultimate goal is to move her organization forward towards the company’s long-term vision.” I agree that so many times leaders attempt to change or have their hand in every aspect of the company. This can lead to confusion of roles within the organization and I believe dependence on others to do the task of one person can take place.
This led me to a chapter I read this past week in my corporate communication ethics graduate class. Within the Handbook of Communication Ethics, Gastil and Sprain mention the importance of establishing roles within groups. “Members must be interdependent to some degree. In a small group, accomplishment of shared goals depends on group members’ contributions,” (p. 172).
When making important decisions within a group, Gastil and Sprain also have some good advice for the leader. “ When internal decisions must be made, such as when solutions must be improvised to meet unexpected circumstances, those are made by the unit’s leader, who have no obligation to consult the unit’s membership before making a determination and giving out commands,” (Gastil &Sprain, p 188).
I think when a leader tampers with everyone’s roles and performs work for others; they may run the risk of inviting problems when an issue does arise that only the leader of the group must take care of. If one individual is put their hands in every area, others may feel they can do the same with certain managerial circumstances.
I really enjoyed reading your blog.
Danielle McCallum
Communication Graduate Student
Drury University

Parag Pandey said...

Nice post. Nowhere is it more evident than in the political sphere. Leaders focus on the urgent, the contingent and the exigent, and revert to being managers. and wonder why their ratings begin to dip.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you search YouTube for "big rocks"... ;)