One Way to Guarantee You Won’t Succeed in Business

Jul27, 2016

I am guessing you have more tasks on your to-do list this week than you can possibly accomplish. I am also betting that more days than not you feel overwhelmed by seemingly conflicting priorities and struggle with where to start (or even stop).

I’ll confess, as I’ve advanced throughout my career, this has been my singular biggest challenge. My appetite is often bigger than my stomach when it comes to workload. Unfortunately, the problem only gets more complicated with time. What is most important? Where is my time best invested? How can I possibly respond to every request?

If you can relate to this, you are not alone. However, as a leader in your organization – this challenge will never take care of itself. It requires intentionality and discipline, but eventually becomes habit. From my experience, I have witnessed three primary patterns of leaders coping with rising responsibility:

  • Denial. The leader continues to smile as nothing gets done and they drown in a list of “I’ll get to that later,” falling more behind and feeling overwhelmed and unsuccessful.
  • Busy work. They hit the ground running to check off the easy things on the list instead of the strategic priorities that really matter.
  • Strategic. The leader rises to the occasion by quickly diving into the work, while frequently taking a step back to prioritize the most important tasks.

It may seem obvious what the best approach is, but if that’s the case, why doesn’t everyone do it?

Prioritization: The Essence of Successful Business Leadership

The real secret to success? Dig deep to uncover and understand the priorities and goals that are most important for you to achieve and work backwards to achieve them. Determining what to say “no” to might be even more critical than what to say “yes” to. In other words, you must become obsessed with “the what” versus “the how.”

We’ve all heard the pebble/rock analogy before—a large glass jar must be filled with a pile of small pebbles and a handful of large rocks. When the pebbles are placed in the jar first, there’s no room left for the large rocks to fit, leaving the majority of the rocks outside the jar and your task unaccomplished. But by placing the large rocks in first (your biggest priorities) and filling in the gaps with the pebbles (your lower priorities), a greater total amount of the rocks can fit in the jar, if not all of them.

I’ve seen this analogy play out numerous times in my roles as a marketing leader. To me, prioritization is by far the most under appreciated attribute of business leaders today. Yet, as you become more senior in your role, more tasks and objectives are inevitably thrown to you than before, demanding a vicious cycle of greater output in less time. More than ever, you must prioritize your big strategic priorities (your rocks).

Prioritization is the most under appreciated attribute of business leaders today. 

The Successful Marketing Leader

I would argue that in no other function of business is prioritization more important than marketing. The list of marketing channels has exploded by a factor of 10 in the last decade, while the customer’s expectations have also shifted dramatically, requiring communications to be more real-time and informed than ever. Further, marketing’s role has expanded dramatically and most departments support functions such as HR, client experience, sales, and product. In other words, the possible number of paths in the decision tree has grown infinitely. Finally, the real-time nature of marketing means that the priorities can change daily (if not hourly).

The Key: How to Prioritize

When done right (and intentionally), prioritization can actually be pretty easy if all the layers of a department or organization align. In marketing, it usually looks something like this:

Following this goal hierarchy forces you to take a step back and regularly ask “what is the most important thing we should be doing for the company?” Sure, projects will change directions and priorities will be reassessed. But setting goals at the highest level (and clearly communicating them to your team) will result in a natural flow of priorities, projects, and subsequent results from the CEO down to the individual contributor. Otherwise, our tendency is to turn our heads toward “shiny objects” and become quickly derailed into developing your company Snapchat strategy (which may in fact be the right thing, but you must first address “the why”).

Marc Benioff’s V2MOM strategy encourages Salesforce employees to think first about the company Vision and Values before setting their own Methods, Objectives, andMeasures—an outstanding depiction of the priority hierarchy and a written commitment from employees to accomplish their goals. This allows employees to have substantial freedom within a framework, while driving massive innovation and being pointed at the right objectives.

When Other Priorities Trump Your Own

While prioritization will help you know how to tackle incoming requests, you can bet there will be times when the priorities of others you seek assistance from will trump your own. Sure, there will be discrepancies and gray areas when it comes to prioritizing. But whatever the outcome of those debates, your “agreement to disagree” must always result in full commitment to the winning priority. If not, differing priorities will result in misaligned teams and unachieved goals.

3 Practical Tips for Leaders

  1. Clarity. If you can’t be clear about your priorities as a leader or your overall vision of the end goal, there’s no way your team can align or commit to them either. Be clear about your priorities/goals, and communicate often.
  2. Consistency. No one can keep their eye on the prize if it keeps changing all the time. Consistency in your priorities and leadership builds trust, which, in turn, becomes the currency of the business. Focus on building out the right priorities and stick to them.
  3. Communication. Don’t fall into the trap of creating a team of task-oriented robots who simply do everything you ask them to. Remember—people are diverse and they have different work styles. Communicate broad, yet specific goals. Be prescriptive with what the result looks like, but allow freedom to decide how they should get there.

Tip: Quarterly meetings, team offsites, and regular planning meetings are great ways to ensure clear communication and alignment on top priorities.

Consistency in your priorities and leadership builds trust, which, in turn, becomes the currency of the business.

3 Practical Tips for Employees

  1. Communication. A must for both parties, clear communication allows the employee to tell their manager “I’m drowning” in work or “I’m bored,” helping realign tasks, workload, and goal progress.
  2. Flexibility. Change is inevitable—projects will course correct, people will come and go, and changes in the market will affect your team. Don’t be so rigid that you freeze up. Welcome the change and move with it so you can create an even better outcome.
  3. Business acumen. Become a student of your company’s technology/business/market. Have enough knowledge to not only be a practitioner, but an expert who takes action. How? Immerse yourself in the work and take risks by doing things first-hand in order to learn them better.

For both leaders and employees, an undercurrent of trust between each other is a must for success. While employees must trust their superiors that the right priorities are being set for the good of the business, leaders must also trust their team to get the work done and do it well.

Summary: Focus on “The What” vs. “The How”

It’s easy to get caught up in surface-level work, especially when you’re overwhelmed as a new leader. By having the discipline to assess what is most important to your success, rather than how to get there, you will realize the most important fundamental of prioritization:

The amount of time you invest doesn’t matter if applied to the wrong thing.


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