From the Desk of the Director

Author: Kim Patton

Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season. Have you made any resolutions, more importantly, are you sticking to them? Many of us, including me, have the best of intentions in keeping those resolutions, but it can be difficult because any change is difficult.

But change also can bring new opportunities as you re-focus on your personal and business goals. For those of you who subscribe to the Harvard Business Review online, you have the benefit of receiving the HBR tip of the day. All of these tips are useful, but some really make you stop and think about your work and leadership styles. I would like to share three of the tips that I found particularly valid, especially to start the new year.

First, everyone should create his or her own personal board of directors. One-on-on mentoring is helpful but it may be a thing of the past. With changes in direction, restructuring, downsizing, acquisitions, mergers and, of course, recession, your mentor is just as likely to move on or be laid off as you or I. In her book "Forget Mentors: Employ a Personal Board of Directors," Priscilla Claman says people need a group of people who regularly act as consultants to give advice and feedback. Traditional monthly board meetings are not required; you just need to keep in touch and reach out when you need their individual counsel.

Choose diverse people who each can uniquely contribute to your thinking. Be sure to invite people who know more than you do about a subject, or have better skills than you do, or who offer a different point of view. You might want to include your boss or a colleague you admire — or both. If you are a senior manager, consider search professionals, academics or consultants with expertise in your specialty. Putting only buddies on your board won't help you grow and develop.

Second, most management experts will advise you to delegate as much as possible. After all, delegating develops your employees and gives you time to focus on the bigger picture. Yet, there are times when passing on that project or task may be imprudent. Whitney Johnson presents a few scenarios in her book, "Three Reasons You Shouldn't Delegate":

  1. When there's lack of clarity. If you can't explain precisely the problem that needs solving or how to best do it, hold off. Wait until you have greater insight to share.
  2. When you need the learning. It's good to develop others, but don't sacrifice your own development. Hold on to tasks that contribute significantly to your own growth.
  3. When the project stakes are too high. There are times when you are truly the best person for the job. Not because you will get it done faster or better, but because the project is too important to pass on to others.

While we know that delegation is an essential management tool, there may be times where you have thought to yourself, "It's just not right to delegate this," and with good reason. Your team may want you to delegate more, but what they really want is for you to know when to delegate.

Lastly, here are four tips for getting unstuck in your job. There are times of the year — or the week, or the day — when you simply have too much to do. You may buckle down and focus, or like many people, you may get overwhelmed and freeze up. The next time that you are stressed out by how much you need to accomplish, Peter Bregman, author of “A Practical Plan for When You Feel Overwhelmed,” advises to do these four steps:

  1. Make a list. Write down everything you need to do on a piece of paper.
  2. Do the quick hits. Take 15 minutes, no more, to do the fastest things on your list: a quick email response, the two-minute phone call. Use a timer to keep you focused.
  3. Turn off distractions. Now spend 35 minutes focused on the tougher things on the list with your phone and e-mail alerts switched off.
  4. Take a break and repeat. Take a 10-minute break and start again. Before long, you'll have crossed enough off your list to restore your calm.

Bregman also states that working within a specific and limited time frame is important because the race against time keeps us focused. When stress is generalized, it’s hard to manage. Using a short time frame actually increases the pressure, but it keeps our efforts specific, and particular to a single task. That increases good, motivating stress while reducing negative, disconcerting stress. The fog of being overwhelmed dissipates and forward movement progresses.

So back to my original question, have you made any resolutions? If not, these three tips would be great work resolutions for 2011. Another question is, how good are you at keeping your resolutions? If you are like the majority of people, the answer probably is, not so good. There is hope though. Steve Martin states in his book, “How to Keep Those New Year’s Resolutions,” that anyone can make accomplishing resolutions easier by doing two things:

  1. Write them down. You are more likely to achieve goals if you set objectives and put them on paper. Be specific about the stepping stones that will get you to the end result.
  2. Invite peer pressure. Share your resolutions with others — family, friends or a trusted colleague. Not wanting to disappoint someone can be good motivation.

The key is identifying and then focusing on just a small number of achievable actions that are logical steps towards the bigger change — probably no more than two or three. When that is done, writing them down, publicizing them to others, and having a system for charting progress will get you well on your way.