The Real Job of a Leader Might Be Harder Than You Think

Success does not equal doing everything.

In my work with a variety of companies, there is a very common and shared view that executives want their managers to be more strategic.

Likewise, I see many managers struggle for three reasons:

  1. They are not sure what being more stratgegic actually looks like.
  2. They are overwhelmed with work.
  3. They think they are supposed to do everything that is asked of them.

The real job of a leader

Managers struggle when they equate high performance with succeeding at everything equally. This in itself could be a definition for what strategic isn’t!

In case you missed it, I made a chart: What it means to be strategic.

Choosing and sticking to priorities is one of hardest (and most important) things that a leader can do, and it’s the thing that makes the best leaders stand out.

Managers who prioritize and execute well specifically on *not everything* get ahead because they get the most important stuff done really well.

When you try to do everything, you don’t even give yourself a chance to do anything really well.

High performance = thinking, then pushing back

At some point you have to step back and admit: This workload is impossible!

And, you have to recognize that your job is not actually to try to do everything (and die trying), but to assess, evaluate, and reorganize your workload into something that IS doable.

The high performers in my organizations were the ones who would come back to me and say,

Of these 37 things you have asked me to do, I believe that these five no longer matter; I think these  three can be combined into one project that another group is already working on; and I believe that baesd on where the business is right now, these two things are the critical priorities that I need to get done first. Do I have your support to finish these two and put the rest at a lower level of priority until I get these done?”

That is what being strategic looks like. That is what high performance looks like.

The people who would try to do everything and not succeed, or tell me that the workload is unreasonable, or constantly ask for more resources, were not the high performers. They were the non-strategic people who were trying to do everything.

Dealing with the impossible is a part of the job

As a leader, your job is to take an impossible, unmanageable workload and understand that a key part of your job is to find a productive way to deal with that fact vs. seeing too much work as something that is making your job un-doable.

Article Continues Below

Yes, every leader faces the same un-doable workload.

Once you focus on deaing with this as an integral part of your job, you can invest positive energy to turn the unreasonable workload into a better workload that has higher value and IS doable. THAT is being more strategic.

What CAN you do?

It’s your job to understand what matters to the business and to figure out how to improve the work, the processes, and the environment. For example:

  • Question old habits.
  • Stop doing things that are no longer necessary or doing things in ways that take more time than the outcome is worth.
  • Decide which piece of your overwhelming workload will create the most business value and start there.

Come up with a compelling proposal about what you CAN do. Get support for it, focus on it, and finish it.

People will start to recognize you as a high performer that can get really important things done in a chaotic environment. You will stand out because this is hard to do.

Less work, more value

When I work with organizations on this issue of prioritization and negotiating and communicating priorities, a few good things happen:

  1. The organization gets aligned on the most important priorities.
  2. The executives realize that they need to offer permission to push back when those priorities are put at risk by an overwhelming workload
  3. The managers realize they not only have permission, but are expected to think though the workload, make recommendations for what to prioritize and why
  4. The managers realize that high performance does not equal trying to do everything, but in fact that high performance does equal identifying, proposing, prioritizing and completing the highest value tasks, and finding a way to deal with the rest of the workload — without trying to do it all equally
  5. The executives get more time to do their executive jobs as the managers take on more and more of the strategic thinking and decision making

As an executive, it is worthwhile to spell this out for your managers, because many of them are living in fear. They know that they can’t do everything, but they are thinking that that’s what the job is, and that that is what you expect them to do.

Give them the permission to have this conversation.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .

Topics