The 2.5% Challenge

Most of us who have occupied senior management posts will recognize the challenge of finding time to change things in the business or team. We can spend a whole week chasing our tails trying to put out fires and solve problems, and by Friday afternoon realize that Monday’s list of good intentions remains unblemished by any tick or crossing out to signal completion. We have committed a high level of energy for little long-term impact with a resulting sense of frustration or even stress. On the way home on the Friday evening we may be thinking ‘how can I be so tired but nothing has really changed or improved?

Stephen Covey highlighted this challenge in his landmark book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989). Covey asks us to consider where we spend our time. Do we focus primarily on the Important and Urgent, focused on the things that need sorting now? Is most of our day spent problem solving, fixing, dealing with issues brought to us by our direct reports? Is there always a queue of people looking for us to make decisions? If the answer to these questions is yes, then we are focused on the daily management challenges where Urgent drives Important.

In our Leadership Factory T model of leadership we see the Urgent and Important as being the vertical part of the T, where we carry out the management role of control and focus. It is at the top of the where we address the leadership challenges of change, development and direction that are Important not Urgent. The problem is that living in the vertical of the T can become addictive where our short term need for fixing excludes our responsibility for long term change. The activities in the vertical are instinctive and require little reflection, just lots of energy and focus. Taking time out to think beyond the immediate is much more difficult and lacks that immediate sense of accomplishment.

Every day has its share of crises, challenges and issues that need addressing immediately. The question we must ask ourselves is ‘is every day like this?’ When do we create time at the top of the T to think about the Important but not Urgent? When do we invest time to look at leadership issues such as the changes in the market place, new product development, growth plans, people development or customer management? Any business can survive in the short term without addressing these areas but it won’t grow and it won’t perform well. If we allow Urgent to trump Important we end up living in the vertical of the T where every day is a hundred miles an hour, with a never ending to-do list. The problem is if we are not spending our time on the strategic challenges and longer-term changes needed in the business no-one else will be. We will leave a leadership vacuum at the top of the organisation.

I often ask very stressed, busy leaders in businesses how much time they invest at the top of the T in the Important as opposed to the Urgent. I ask them if they could commit 2.5% of their time each month to leadership activities in the Important Not Urgent box and invariably they answer in the affirmative. ‘Of course’, they confidently reply, ‘2.5% is a very small amount of time to spend on important leadership activities. I am sure I can manage at least thatI then ask them what amount of time 2.5% constitutes of a normal 20 day working month. Using both fingers and toes, some quick arithmetic identifies that 2.5% of 20 days is half a day per month invested in leadership, Important but not Urgent activities at the top of the T. Half a day a month set aside to lead the business. Their reaction is immediate: ‘Half day a month out the business! I couldn’t spare that – I’m just too busy!’ If we can’t invest 2.5% of our time a month into leadership activities then perhaps it’s time to accept we are managers, not leaders.

One of the hardest exercises is to take time away from the daily pressures and ask ourselves ‘do we meet the 2.5% challenge?’ How much time in a month are we dedicating to Important Not Urgent activities such as strategy, people development or performance improvement? If it is less that half a day a month then we need to make some changes. There could be a lack of leadership in your area….

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