How Do Leaders Make a Valuable Difference? They Focus Only on the Important.

Stacey Ashley Blog

How Do Leaders Make a Valuable Difference? They Focus Only on the Important.

As a middle manager, one of the challenges I faced in my corporate career was how to get everything done. I remember when I was working for a large telecommunications company and I had quite a significant team, perhaps 50 or 60 people at that time. I was also the key stakeholder in the delivery of a major systems programme valued at about 100 million dollars. To be honest, I was completely swamped at the time. I was working silly hours. I was stressed. I couldn’t remember when I had any kind of reasonable break away from work.

It was more challenging because when I spoke to my boss about how busy I was he would say something like, if I need to get something done I’ll always give it to a busy person. Typically, that meant me. So, his approach wasn’t terribly helpful for me.

I’ve learned a lot since then, both in my own career and as a productivity consultant.

Now when I’m speaking to leaders who have a similar set of challenges:

  • many things in their portfolio requiring their attention
  • lots of people in their team
  • ongoing change and business growth
  • demands from different areas of the business, and
  • managing expectations from people, both inside and outside the organisation,

I use a different approach.

Based on what I’ve learned, I help them to have the right conversations with their leader, and take control of their work, the contribution they make, the impact they have, and the value they add.

If you want to get back under control and make the contribution you want to have, while creating the opportunity to have the right mix of your life and work together, read on.


There are two ideas to tackle  before we dive into the details:

1. First you need to get really clear on the things that are actually important. Not just the things you might think are important, but those that truly do have impact and that you uniquely can contribute to.

2. The second thing is to determine how many hours you are going to work each week. Not just ‘whatever it takes’, rather what is fair and reasonable for your role. Now I know that there will be exceptions from time to time, but that is what they should be, they should be exceptions. So as a general rule how many hours of work do you plan to do each week? Maybe 40 or 50, or 35. Decide now, what is your number of hours each week.

I need to let you know as we start this process, that in order for this to be effective for you and to create the space you need so that not only are you doing a task, you are also in a position to lead, with the space and the time to think and to create and be strategic and to lead your people, you need to be disciplined.

This is about intention and commitment to follow through. You need to decide that this is important enough for you that you want to make a difference for yourself, your people, and your organisation.

So, what will it be? Is this important enough for you to want to change and make a different outcome for yourself?

At this point, you should know what is important and how many hours of work you plan to do for the week.


Now we start to get into some more detailed steps:

1. You need to break down your big pieces of important work into the tasks. How many hours of work does it take to complete each aspect of the larger, important piece of work?

Why is this important?

What I find when I’m working with senior leaders is many have a great list of things that they need to do. Yet they do not know how many of hours of work they have on that list. They get frustrated that they are not getting to the strategic aspects of their role.  They are simply responding to the reactive and the business as usual tasks, rather than making progress with the strategic aspects.

This happens because they often do not have a plan. Knowing how much work is involved, how many hours of their effort, and allocating time to do it.

There is a lack of practical intention to get this important strategic work done. It is left on the list. Whenever it remains on the ‘to do’ list it is less likely to get your attention, focus and energy to make progress with it.

I know I’m sounding a bit preachy here, but this is a big one for me because this is what gets in the way of leaders leading. This is the foundation of getting organised, clearing the clutter, only focusing on the things where you can make a difference. Getting rid of the noise so that you have the space to lead.

If you want to create the space to lead you need to break down those big pieces of work into smaller chunks. Then decide when you are going to action each of those chunks, knowing how long each chunk of activity will take.

2. The next step is to decide when you will action them. To put them into your calendar. Make choices. Which day of the week will you do each activity? What time of day?  You create a plan for yourself to do your important, strategic, value-adding work.

I know for some people this is going to feel uncomfortable. I completely get that. However, if you do not create these intentions, when will your work get done?

If you have a sense of how much time you are going to dedicate to each of these things, you then know how much time you have available for other things, for reactive work, for emails, for spending time with your team and so on. So, make a plan of how you intend to spend the next week. It can be as tight or loose as you need it to be, but there has to be intention behind it and then there has to be discipline to follow through.

3. Ruthless discipline. I remember when I was a productivity consultant, the concept of ruthless discipline to execute the plan was strongly encouraged. I really agree with that. I think in order for you to accomplish what you set out to, you need to stay the course. (realistically, you should regularly adjust your plan on the basis of new information). So, if you want to make a difference in your role, then have the intention to do so.

One of my mentors said to me, ‘I’m not naturally organised. In fact, I find this kind of approach quite confronting. The reason I do it though, is because I am fundamentally lazy, and this way I do just the right things, in just the right way…and nothing else. So, it works for me.’

What you will probably notice as you go through this kind of planning and deconstruction process, as you break down your bigger activities into smaller tasks is everything you have in your portfolio is not going to fit into your 40 or 50 hours a week.

4. This is where decision-making comes in. You need to choose where to focus your leadership role. You choose which aspects of your important work you are going to make progress with.

  • So which important work are you going to do?
  • Which important work might you delegate to peers or team members?
  • Which work is not going to happen at all, so you are effectively deleting it?
  • Which important work are you going to delay until later?

5. Then you need to lead the conversation to manage expectations.

Going into this conversation is much easier with the evidence of your workload you have compiled with your planning. You are in a much stronger position than I was when I was complaining I was ‘too busy.’

It is these very choices that allow you to focus your leadership effort and energy where you can make a difference. If you try to do everything, as you may have already discovered, you will spread yourself too thin and you do nothing well and do not make the difference you want to.

If you focus specifically and only on the important, then you can make your contribution and add value. Part of this contribution and adding value is making sure that you have the time and the space to lead, to grow your people, to grow leaders, to mentor them, and to coach them. If all you are doing is running from one task to the next, you will never create this space.

“Focus on being productive instead of busy.”

Tim Ferriss

The onus is on you to create the space to lead. Rather than complaining about how much work you have to do, and procrastinating over how to handle it, you need to lead this conversation.

Gather the evidence about how much work you do have, how many hours of work you have, so that you can have the important conversations with your leader about where you are going to focus to support your shared agenda.

Avoid trying to do it all, not doing anything well and never having a moment to think or to lead. If you want things to be different in six months’ time you need to make some changes now.

What is the one thing that you are going to do differently from today?

I’d love to know your thoughts.

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