How to Keep the Urgent from Distracting from the Important

Beth Miller |

One of the five top mistakes leaders make is falling into the vicious spiral in which the urgent takes over the important on a continual basis.

This spiral leads to goals being unmet or slipping 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 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, the company misses changes taking place externally in the market, 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 that will make the difference between your company just surviving, and thriving?

The Important
A leader’s ultimate job is to move her organization forward toward the company’s long-term vision. So the important things to a company are those projects, decisions, meetings, employees, and external influences that will affect this.

And we all know the urgent – an employee crisis, a problem with a customer delivery, a vendor not meeting a commitment, a key prospect requiring a quick proposal turnaround … 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 in the face of the urgent, and I have found that there are three things that allow this: Delegation, time management, and emotional intelligence – the ability to be calm and not over-react.

Effectively delegating urgent issues requires a level of trust in the person being delegated to – trust that he or she 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 how – and to whom – you can offload the urgent.

Time management is the next critical skill required 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. Urgent tasks aren’t the rocks; they are the pebbles.  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, take the time to re-prioritize so that you can quickly get 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 focusing 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, enjoy continued growth, success and less stress.

Image Credit: The Stock Exchange (www.sxc.hu) User: neviusluke

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Beth Miller

Beth Miller

Beth Armknecht Miller’s passion for learning, and dedication to helping others, are strands woven throughout her distinguished career, which continue to guide her work with Executive Velocity, a top talent and leadership development advisory firm. As a trusted executive consultant, Vistage Chair, and committed volunteer, Beth holds herself to a rigorous standard of excellence, and she encourages her clients to do the same when pursuing their goals.

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