time management for leaders

The metaphor of putting rocks, pebbles, and sand in a jar has been used for decades to illustrate the time management principle of prioritization. If we start with sand, then marbles, and finally rocks, we likely won’t get many rocks in the jar. And the jar will have gaps and empty spaces. However, if we first add the rocks, then the marbles, and finally sand, we’ll get more rocks into the jar — with no gaps and empty space.

Many leadership teams fill their days with sand. And too often, in their urgent firefighting, throw pebbles and rocks at each other. Heike Bruch, professor of leadership at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and Jochen Menges, lecturer in human resources and organizations at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, wrote a series of articles in Harvard Business Review on the strategic use of time problem. They called it “The Acceleration Trap.” This typical approach means speeding up to pile on more tasks and projects. Harried and accelerated leaders don’t feel they have time to step back and focus on strategic priorities. This is another well-used time management metaphor; the woodcutter who won’t stop to sharpen his ax.

In their study of over 600 companies, Bruch and Menges compared the most effective to least effective companies. Do their findings sound familiar?

“At companies we define as fully trapped, 60% of surveyed employees agreed or strongly agreed that they lacked sufficient resources to get their work done; compare that with 2% at companies that weren’t trapped. The findings were similar for the statements ‘I work under constantly elevated time pressure’ (80% versus 4%) and ‘My company’s priorities frequently change’ (75% versus 1%). Most respondents at fully trapped companies disagreed or strongly disagreed that they saw a light at the end of the tunnel of intense working periods (83% versus 3% in non-trapped companies) and that they regularly got a chance to regenerate (86% versus 6%).”

The Acceleration Trap research adds to many studies showing that the most effective leaders slow down to speed up. For example, in a study of 343 businesses (conducted with the Economist Intelligence Unit) The authors report,

“The companies that embraced initiatives and chose to go, go, go to try to gain an edge ended up with lower sales and operating profits than those that paused at key moments to make sure they were on the right track. What’s more, the firms that ‘slowed down to speed up’ improved their top and bottom lines, averaging 40% higher sales and 52% higher operating profits over a three-year period.”

This reactive and crazy busy acceleration are the first two of our Seven Leadership Team Failure Factors quiz. The quickie quiz helps you “look in the mirror” to see which of the seven common traps are ensnaring your leadership team:

  1. Highly Reactive and Crazy Busy
  2. The Acceleration Trap
  3. Low Culture/Capacity Development
  4. Poor Monkey Management
  5. No Time for Coaching Skill Development
  6. Working in Versus on Your Team
  7. Falling Down the Meeting Sinkhole

These are vital strategic issues. Complete the team assessment and compare your total score with our scoring guide. We will send you links to leadership team development resources.  An even more powerful approach is to have your leadership team complete the assessment and compare your scores.

Highly effective leadership teams rock. They periodically put down their sand and pebbles to agree on which 3 or 4 rocks they need to focus on. A leadership team retreat is a great way to do that. It’s slowing down to speed up.

So, is that jar completely full after adding first the rocks, then the pebbles, and finally the sand? Not quite. You could pour a beer or glass of wine over everything and fill the jar to the very top. A great way for the leadership team to toast getting their shift together.