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I recently worked with an executive who had woken up to the reality that she needed to develop new ways to wrangle her workload. She was called out in a couple of meetings in which she was insufficiently prepared, didn’t listen well, and wasn’t able to answer questions posed by senior leadership. Motivated to keep this from happening again, she came to me for help.

This is a common scenario that many executives – emerging or otherwise – face. In previous positions, they did an excellent job of staying on top of their workload and maintaining high standards. In an expanded role – which can include leading others and greater responsibility across domains and project areas – executives can feel out of control and at times overwhelmed.

In many of these situations, executives don’t have a strategy for getting out in front of what is happening to them. Therefore, they are mostly reactive rather than proactive and this can play out in many ways: being distracted in meetings, attempting to multitask when single-thread concentration is warranted, being defensive, exhibiting poor listening, and canceling meeting attendance last-minute or arriving late. Left unchecked, this can have a real, negative impact on one’s leadership reputation and inhibit further professional growth, as well as undermine trust among upper management, peers, and direct reports.

The good news is that the remedy is straightforward and fairly easy to implement. I call it the morning scan. The key ingredients to the success of this daily practice include the ability to observe oneself, to notice interpersonal dynamics, commit to change, and to be resourceful in one’s application and adherence to it.

The Morning Scan 

Successful leaders add this daily ritual typically at the beginning of the day before their main work starts. For many executives, increasing levels of responsibility and scope as they advance are layered on top of a pre-existing full workload. At the same time, the number of hours in the day hasn’t increased, so one is left with the reality of having to cover more ground in less time.

The way I’ve seen successful leaders manage this new level of work is to add an hour into their morning routine, either arriving at work an hour earlier or doing the routine at home. It starts with three steps:

  1. Review your key projects at a high level, scanning through them to notice what milestones need to be hit in the short-term and the ongoing issues that are most impactful when not solved. 
  2. Look at the calendar for the day to see what commitments you have on the books, what meetings you need to attend, and where you have some space to focus on work or collaborate with others.
  3. Culminate the scan into a list of three to five areas of attention that make the shortlist of what you will focus on today. Prioritize the list of those items in the order you will handle them, and map them against your calendar.

All of the above should take about ten minutes.

Next: Wrangle the Top Priorities

For the balance of the hour, focus on the three to five items identified and make significant progress against completing – or at least getting your hands around – them. Leaders do this one of two ways. Either tackle the first one or two priorities and complete them as fully as possible in the balance of the hour.  Or timeboxing yourself to do a little bit on each of the three to five in the 50 minutes left, spending 10-15 minutes on each one to cover the highlights and remove roadblocks for the people who support them so that the priorities can move forward.

Extra Credit: The Weekly Scan

Once or even twice per week, successful leaders review the upcoming week, figuring out where they may need to make proactive changes to their schedule to accommodate the work and identify personal priorities they see. For example, a Monday morning scan might reveal that a meeting scheduled for the upcoming Thursday needs to be rescheduled because it’s a lower priority, or it needs to be delegated to have someone else attend in the executive’s place to keep things moving when appropriate.

Adding in the daily and weekly scan habits can feel awkward and a bit unnatural at first. There may be the danger of getting bogged down on one issue. But leaders who practice this ritual feel so much relief within a short time by getting a better feel for the flow of the day before it happens. It also helps determine how best to manage their time and perspective in meetings against key priorities. The bottom-line impact for the company is also positive because the practice enables the executive to lead from a place of intention instead of reactivity. This leads to better allocation of resources, more strategic thinking, better outcomes for the company, the team’s development and recognition, and ultimately the executive’s career advancement.

Photo Credit:  jacoblund

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