Doing a lot more with a lot less, stretched paper-thin and barely balancing the chaos is a typical day in the office for a modern-day leader. We can’t remember a day when they were not busy. We can’t remember when a plan did exactly what it said it would do. All we know is fast-paced, busy and changeable.
A Harvard Business Review study found that in the 1970s C-Suite executives received about 1,000 messages per year. In the 2010s they received around 30,000 per year, and today it’s around 72,000.
It’s not just the volume of work but the pace of work that’s picked up too – planning and forecasting cycles have dropped from 5-10yrs in the 90’s to 1-3yrs, there is a restructure every 18months, and decisions have a far shorter gestation period.
And if you’re in the B-Suite (a middle manager) it’s potentially worse.
You have the fast pace:
- Your C-Suite setting ambitious expectations for you to translate into reality (now)
- Customer expectations are for immediate gratification (what was a 5 day response time is not fast enough at 5 hours now)
- Increased speed of competition, improvements and learning.
But no space:
- Your direct reports are far more needy day to day than those reporting to your CEO
- A large and complex array of stakeholder and collaborators with immediate, urgent needs
- You’re copied into everything (everything!)
- And no EA to filter any of it
Hi-pace demands and no space to think. The chaos combination.
A combination that is increasingly leading to burn-out – most commonly for leaders in the middle; at the B-Suite.
So how do we handle it?
Control the pace rather than letting it control you.
Tim Ferris famously said ‘Focus on being productive, instead of busy.’ but how?
Unless you’re at the top of the decision making tree, you may have little autonomy over deciding what work gets done, which puts you at the mercy of more work being thrown your way and less ability to get it all done. A minefield of ‘more busy, less productive’ work.
This makes us feel out of control and unproductive and it puts us at risk of burnout, found when the demands of a job outstrip a person’s ability to cope with the stress (which is hitting the B-Suite more than any other cohort).
So start by getting your response under firm control. These two models will give you enough of a semblance of control that you will find yourself moving from a sense of constant chaos and into a more empowered mode of operating. These models are simple, can be created independently (and refined over time) and more importantly they work fast:
- A coping mechanism (like Stephen Covey’s circles of control, influence and concern are my favourite) is an important part of actively managing workload stress. When applied ruthlessly to every concern that is taking up precious time in your head, you’ll very quickly realise that up to 40% of your attention is on things that you cannot control, nor even influence. So while you’re feeling the stress of chaos, I suggest you shut off that 40% and come back to it once you have the pace under control.
- Prioritising the work is crucial, and depending on your role, this can be as frequent as a daily ritual. Another Covey classic (which actually came from Eisenhower) is the urgent versus important matrix. The important thing with prioritisation is to get your criteria right. Even more strategic criteria such as speed: value or impact: effort can be even more empowering. While the workload might come from other people, the one determining the priorities is now you. This sense of empowerment is the first step to having far more influence on how to get the work done, and a stronger bargaining position when you need more time or resources.
When you’re in the B-Suite, you don’t have time to breathe, let alone think. You’re being pulled down into the detail of managing your team and their work, pulled sideways into complex collaboration and supporting your team’s success from outside your function, and pulled up into committees, papers and board preparation.
Without your own clear priorities, and ability to step away from fruitless worries, you are automatically at the mercy of the priorities of others and at the heart of the chaos.