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Time Management: It's Not About Checklists and Quadrants; It's About Your Boss

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For years we've heard that time management is about quadrants, action items, and prioritizing tasks. In fact, go to just about any time management seminar, and the trainer will spend lots of time showing you how to analyze your calendar, log your time spent in activities, plan your work week, etc. And at such a seminar you'll likely realize that you do indeed spend too much time on email, on the phone, and on urgent activities (fire fighting). So you'll plan your calendar better, define your activities in quadrants, and prioritize your workload. But then the trainer leaves, and within a week you fall right back into your place on the treadmill.

Why does this happen? Because no matter what your actual job is, you likely tend to do those things that you think your boss expects you to do. So even though an important part of your job may be to write business plans, you know that your boss also expects you to answer her emails within 15 minutes or to be available on instant messenger. Your boss expects you to pick up the phone when needed and to help senior management deal with those last-minute emergencies. Very often, these expectations come before the important tasks you need to do. And while communication and helping senior management is important, if you're truly going to have the time to spend on tasks that move the company forward, then you're going to need to gain more power over your schedule and apply it to your day.

Rather than reel with interruption after interruption, you need to have a conversation with your boss about the various activities you are expected to do. The purpose of this dialogue is for both of you to reach agreement on what success is. Then you must constantly manage expectations.

Manage Your Manager, Not Your Time

In order to take back your time, your life, and your career, you need to step into the realm of managing your manager, thereby altering his or her expectations related to your time. The goal is to achieve complete alignment between what your boss wants and perhaps needs you to do and what you believe you really should do. Here's how you do it:

1. Analyze your bosses' needs. You need to know what your bosses expect of themselves and what your boss's boss expects of him. What goals do your bosses have? What can you do to help them be more successful?

Unfortunately, a lot of people in business assume that "meeting the boss's needs" means doing exactly what the boss wants them to do—accepting the boss's vision and direction wholesale. Wrong! This assumption is a little too simplistic and dangerous. It sets the stage for aligning their lips with their boss's backside rather than meeting the needs that'll actually make a difference.

Real "managing upward" demands a more serious and subtle analysis of human needs, which starts with the realization that needs come in two forms—explicit needs and implicit needs.

Explicit needs are easier to understand. They may be stated in the strategic plan diffused by the company or the division, or they may be announced by your boss whenever the team gets together for the all-too-often strategy session. They may sound something like this:
  • "We need to expand our business internationally."

  • "We need to create a shipping policy that will save us some money."

  • "We need to commerce-enable our website."
Implicit needs are more subtle. People don't talk about them. Sometimes they're not even aware of them. Most of the time they are things that people would deny if confronted with them. They sound like this:
  1. "Make me look good in front of my boss so that when he gets kicked upstairs he'll recommend me for his job."

  2. "Help me demonstrate my creativity by coming up with some ideas for next year's marketing campaign that I can tweak a little and take on as my own."

  3. "Help me feel more like a leader and less like the kid who was always picked last in the schoolyard basketball games."
While explicit needs tend to run a linear path, implicit needs tend be random, triggered by emotion and circumstance. And although you will never actually talk to your boss about his or her implicit needs, it's a fun exercise to sit down with a sheet of paper and try listing your boss's implicit needs. Paying attention to implicit needs is serious, as these often drive the issues that'll keep us up at night. From the first day you meet your new boss through the last day you work together, devote enough of your time and thinking to really understanding you boss's implicit needs. Then spend time on the needs that you can feel good about supporting to further your company's interest as well as your boss's career.
  • "What are the activities I am engaged in when I am contributing the most?"

  • "What are the activities that you and the company most need me to do?"

  • "What do you consider to be the best and most productive use of my time?"

  • "What do you think is the special contribution that I am best positioned to offer to you and the company?"

  • "Of all the things that I'm engaged in on behalf of this company, what are the three areas where you believe that I can contribute the most?"
Listen carefully to your boss's answers. Using them as a guide, you can begin to understand exactly how your boss views your contributions. It's quite likely that the way he or she measures your value is different from the way you might measure it.

2. Adopt a management value-added mindset. The concept of "management value added" (MVA) is based on a simple question that you should ask whenever you're making a decision about how to invest your time and energy: "What value does management add?"

One way to start using the concept of MVA is by sitting down with your boss to discuss his or her explicit needs (the ones written down as part of the company's strategy or the division's official mandate). It shouldn't take long for the two of you to agree on what they are and to prioritize them appropriately. Then ask your boss, "How do you feel I can add the most value?" If your boss responds, "Huh?" you can flesh out the question with additional questions like these:

3. Implement what you learn. You can use the information your boss shares with you to help you determine how to spend your time, which projects to support, and which meetings to attend. So if your boss replies, for example, that your most important areas of contribution are your ability to 1) hire, nurture, and guide talent, 2) build capacity, and 3) stay close to the customers, then before committing to any new activity, you can ask yourself, "Will this activity help me achieve my priorities? Will it help me put the right people in the right jobs? Will it help me build capability? Will it help me know and connect with our customers?" If the answer is no, avoid the activity—even if it sounds otherwise interesting, appealing, or fun.

Abiding by the MVA concept helps you maintain a focus on the things that matter while earning the support of those you serve. Then when your boss or someone else in the organization asks you to commit time or energy to an area that falls outside of the MVA priorities you've established, you can talk to your boss about how the new commitment may affect your main goals and reach a joint decision as to whether a shift in priorities is warranted. Each time you and your boss are out of alignment, you have an opportunity to further understand your boss's needs and goals. Expect this approach to help you remove many useless meetings from your agenda, but also realize that sometimes, often as a result of implicit needs, you'll be required to go along for the ride.

Manage Your Future for Success

When you follow this process and gain agreement, you'll have a clearer understanding of where your focus should be each day. With clear focus comes a renewed sense of purpose, because you're now spending your time on what truly matters—both to you and to your boss. And when everyone's needs are being met in a way that supports the company's vision, the result is a more productive and happier work environment.

About the Author:

Vince Thompson is a former executive for AOL and the principal at Middleshift, a consulting company focused on creating revenue for Internet businesses by empowering those in the middle and super-serving customers. His clients include, and Napster. His book Ignited: Managers, Light up Your Career for More Power, More Purpose and More Success will be available from Pearson's FT Press in April of 2007. For more information on Vince's book or consulting, please contact:
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