How to make sure every top team member does one thing right.

CEOs should consider the following when assigning tasks to leadership team members:

  • Members of the leadership team are likely to be the most capable people in the organization and therefore among the most important to deploy optimally.
  • Each needs to be especially clear about what is most important for them to do and then spend the lion-share of their time doing it.
  • If something is important to do, then someone important ought to be in charge of getting it done.
  • Each member of the top team ought to be in charge of something important.
  • It is not possible to be personally responsible for more than one or two important things at a time.

The idea is to ensure that at least what well-deployed leaders focus on goes well and to model how things should be done for the rest of the organization. Think of it this way: leadership team members don’t have to get everything right, but they each have to get something right.

The Problem

Most people, including even most top leaders, instinctively choose to spend their time doing many more than one or two things, possibly because in their minds:

  • Doing many things increases the odds that something will go well.
  • Having too many things to do gives a great excuse for not being successful at any particular thing.
  • The need to think hard about how to spend time is replaced by the much easier rule to spend time based on demands of the next email, text, tweet, phone call, conversation, knock on the door, etc.
  • Having so many things vying for attention makes a leader feel powerful and busy, often to the point of having a “Hero complex”.

On the other hand, having many things to do means the most important people do not meet their goals because:

  • Each task gets too little time, attention, and effort.
  • Each leader works hard, but gets little done, gets tired, loses confidence, and feels ineffective yet has an inflated sense of self importance.

The CEO’s job is to make clear what is most important for each leadership team member to do and to arrange for them to do it, and little-to-nothing else, even though it may cause leadership team members to feel a greater risk of failure.

The Solution

To solve the problem, the CEO should:

  • Work with each leader to rank their assignments in priority order.
  • Ask if the odds of success on the most important task would go up if the leadership team member were to spend more time on it.  The answer will likely be “Yes”.
  • Tell the leader to spend all their time on their top priority task until the odds of success would not get any better with any more time on it.

Most leaders will shudder at the thought of having so little to do as they realize it is now incumbent on them to be successful at just one important task. It occurs quickly that they might not be successful.  When they ask: “What if I fail?” the CEO should express so much confidence that the leader will succeed that s/he will absolve her/him of such risk and promise to assign yet another important task should she/he fail at this one.

The CEO should add that if the leader puts everything into completing an assigned task, but fails on six different tasks in sequencethen, and only then, maybe it will be time to discuss whether there is good fit with the organization.

The intent is to put the fear of failure far into the future to free the the leader to concentrate on the task they have been asked to do and not on the downside consequences of failure. The fear of failure thus moves from the leader to the CEO who is then highly motivated to provide assistance, resources, governance, and incentives to maximize the odds of success.

Related Points

  • When a matter comes up for discussion, ask if it is important.  If it is, then ask who is in charge of making sure it goes well.  If no one comes to mind then assign someone or second guess its importance.
  • When speaking with someone on the leadership team, ask what important thing they are responsible for completing.  If nothing comes to mind then it is fair to wonder why they are on the leadership team.
  • If something is not important then no one should even be thinking about it.
  • The points presented in this post align well with Steven Covey’s parable about Big Rocks. and the first three principles of his 7 Habits for Effective People: end in mind, first things first, and be proactive.

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