Managing Priorities: A Key to Leadership Success

Guest post from Martin Lanik:

As a
leader, do you scramble to get your work done at the very last minute or tend
to cram the night before a big meeting? 
Are your team members often confused about what to do and unable to complete
their assignments on time?  These
problems can usually be solved if you learn to improve one very important
leadership skill:  managing priorities.

clear priorities, you will struggle to get anything done, because everything
will seem equally important and you won’t know how to most effectively spend
your time and energy.  Similarly, when
your team doesn’t have clear priorities, individual members will struggle to coordinate
their efforts. They will feel overwhelmed by all the work coming their way and
the team will generally lack an understanding of what needs to be accomplished.

Four Steps to
Managing Priorities

priorities means identifying which tasks are most important and allocating
appropriate time to accomplish them. In our extensive research and testing of
nearly 800 executives for my book THE
, my team and I discovered that there are four behaviors that
effective leaders practice when they prioritize:

1. They break
down the larger project into smaller tasks and assignments that are clear,
concrete, and actionable, so that everyone knows exactly what to do.

2. They
divide the tasks into more and less critical pursuits, for example identifying
what needs to get done straight away vs. what can wait until tomorrow.

3. They
look at each task and assignment and estimate how long it will take to
accomplish; the time estimates are realistic and comfortably achievable.

4. They
base priorities on a solid, logical rationale, so that everyone understands why
a particular task is more important than others.

5-Minute Leader Habit Exercises to Turn Managing
Priorities into a Habit

Once you
understand that the four behaviors described above are the key to managing
priorities, you will need to internalize them for yourself, turning them into
habits.  Based on our finding that it
takes 66 days to turn a behavior into a habit, we have created four simple
exercises that will help you improve your ability to manage priorities.  Below are the four exercises.

Break down
projects into tasks.

you probably won’t start a new project every day, you can get in the habit of
breaking down your daily tasks into smaller action items using this exercise: After
picking a task from your to-do list, write down 2-3 things you need to do to
complete the task.
For example, if one of your tasks today is to create a
presentation, your two action items could be to create the slides and then
write the speaker notes.

Divide your
tasks into more and less critical pursuits.

You can get
in the habit of doing this behavior by starting your workday with this simple
exercise: After sitting down at your desk to start your workday, write down
the 2-3 most important tasks you must complete that day.
Of course, you
should work on these tasks before anything else.

appropriate time for completing your work.

behavior requires you to make an accurate estimate of how much time it will
take you to complete a given task. Without accurate time estimates, it is
difficult to plan your work and complete it on schedule. To turn this behavior
into a habit, practice this exercise: After adding a task to your to-do
list, write down your estimate of how long it will take you to complete the
For example, you might estimate that it will take 30 minutes to draft
an email informing your team about a new client project.

Be clear why something is a priority

When prioritizing projects or tasks, make your rationale for the
decision clear to yourself and others on your team. Use the following exercise
to practice this behavior on a daily basis: After describing a project (in
an email or a conversation), briefly explain why it is a priority by saying,
“This is a priority because …”
For example, you may prioritize a project
because it is for your largest customer.

At work, managing priorities is crucial to implementing new business
strategies or aligning your team with an existing one.  The same is true for situations when you are
charged with improving products and services. 
If you cannot readily break down larger projects into smaller tasks and
prioritize them, you will struggle to bring your team’s activities into line
with the organization’s planned objectives. 
By making a habit of managing priorities, you will be well on your way
to improving your skill as a leader.

Martin Lanik, Ph.D., author of THE
is the CEO of Pinsight®, a global leadership software-as-service
company known for its disruptive HR technology. His leadership programs have
been implemented by more than 100 companies – including AIG and CenturyLink –
and have received awards from Chief
Learning Officer
and Brandon Hall. 
Lanik holds a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from
Colorado State University.