The world’s fastest time management tip for CEOs

“Only do what only you can do.”

That’s it.

Only do what only you can do. Otherwise delegate, until there is no-one else to delegate to.

An boss of mine years ago banged this into my head, and it’s still there, and it’s still key to making my life sustainable and my company profitable.

I often seeing my own direct reports doing things that their teams could do. Meanwhile, I see their staff on facebook or chatting at their desks.  I repeat like a mantra, “Only do what only you can do.”  If anyone who works for you can do the task you are currently doing, stop immediately and delegate. If there is a shared-service function that can do what you are currently doing, stop and delegate. If, once you take into account the fixed-cost of delegation, you save one single minute by delegation, you should delegate.

Delegation should go as far down the company as possible, right up until the point where quality would suffer and no further. As a leader, ensuring this happens is your responsibility to whoever is paying your bills.  To do otherwise is to do your shareholders a disservice.

Think through the activities involved in your most recent hour of work. Was there anyone else who could have done it?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Do CEOs experience less stress than their staff?

A study reported in Time claims that, contrary to popular belief, CEOs actually experience less stress than their staff.

Actually, that was a side-effect. The core finding of the study was that those who have more control over their day have lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) than those with less control over their day. Because CEOs have more control on average, they experience less stress on average.

Makes sense to me. I’ve written before that people who report to me seem to find things more stressful than I do. And I certainly feel a lot more stress on days when the owners are in the building…


The good news is that this is something CEOs can help their staff with. Here are some ways I’ve implemented in the past:

  • Get ALL staff to at least propose their own objectives. That means ALL staff. Cleaners, receptionists, customer services, vice-presidents
  • Hold all-staff meetings where you explain what’s going on. Regularly. Far more regularly than you want to or have time for. In these meetings, tell people things they don’t strictly need to do to get their jobs done. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it
  • Unless there’s a really good reason not to — like a staff member works in customer service and need to be available at defined times — allow staff to set their own working hours
  • Unless your staff really need to wear a particular thing — for a branding or safety reason, for example — allow them to wear whatever they want. (Professional services firm? Don’t worry about clients. They don’t care. Truly. In fact often it’ll help your company feel more human.)
  • As far as possible, allow staff to work wherever they want to — including home, cafe, quiet office, open plan, a different desk each day
  • Provide training to help your staff understand their energy levels and how they change throughout the day. Then give them permission to move things — like meetings and solo working time — to better fit their energy levels
  • Let your staff listen to headphones if they want to. (This one might sound ridiculous — who wouldn’t allow a staff member to listen to headphones? But early in my career I got buttonholed by a peer manager. “When are you going to tell David to take those things off his ears?” he thundered at me. “Never,” I replied. David was a huge introvert, and I know those earphones were one of his coping mechanisms in an open-plan office.)

Interested in your views. What else would help?

Posted in Management | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What if you don’t actually want to break for lunch?

I don’t need breaks during the day.

(New research from Stanford suggests that this might not be misplaced arrogance, but rather a function of my beliefs about willpower. If I don’t think I need breaks, probably I don’t need breaks. It’s that simple.)

Nor do I want breaks. I love my job, I find it stimulating, and frankly it’s a bit irritating to have to stop to eat and go to the bathroom. I find my field of work the most interesting topic there is, so by definition stopping doing work means doing something less interesting.

This gives me a dilemma at lunchtime.

I have to eat, eventually. I usually delay it until I physically can’t work any more, around 2 p.m. Usually by this time my assistant has asked me kindly if I’ve had time for lunch yet and I’ve mumbled something to get her off my case.

I could always eat at my desk, or take food into a meeting. But I don’t want to role model a lack of breaks. There’s at least some evidence that some people need breaks. Not everyone enjoys their work like I do.

So I hide. I hide in a little meeting room, with some light reading that I save up during the day, and my introvert batteries get recharged along with my glycogen levels.

Harvard Business Review had an interesting article today called ‘It’s Time To Bring Back the Executive Dining Room‘. It would help people like me keep working.

Posted in Management | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monday resolution: Do you know your churn rate? Do you track it?

Regular readers will know I am a big fan of The Lean Startup, a guide to nimble innovation for large and small businesses. This weekend I’ve been re-reading it, and here’s what I’m going to do differently on Monday as a result.

The section that really struck me this time was about identifying your ‘engine of growth’. The book argues there are three potential engines of growth:

1. Sticky growth: This is when your customers repeatedly buy something from you — like a magazine subscription, or a Coke. Your business’s rate of growth is determined by how fast you’re bringing in new customers and losing old ones (the latter your ‘churn rate’).

2. Viral growth: This occurs when your existing customers bring in new customers as a side effect of using your product. Facebook is a famous example. Your rate of viral growth is determined by how many new customers the average existing customer brings in. This one can produce dramatic growth, but is hard to pull off.

3. Paid growth: This occurs when you buy new customers — through paid advertising, for example. Your business’s rate of growth depends upon the difference between how much it costs to acquire each customer, versus your profit on each one. (And, pragmatically, on how much cash you have to invest.)

Most medium-sized businesses like mine, with a suite of products and both B2B and B2C customers, have some combination of the three engines of growth. For example, my business has the first and third.

It’s important to understand which engine of growth you’re using for each part of your business, because otherwise you can’t begin to track progress. You can only truly track your progress at the level of each engine, not overall. Overall is too general. Overall doesn’t tell you what to do.

Here are some examples: If you don’t know what your churn rate is, how do you know whether your ‘sticky’ approach is working? How do you know whether you should be doubling investment in that area of the business or launching a turnaround? How do you make sure you notice when growth on one engine slows down and you need to kick start it elsewhere?

And here’s what I realised yesterday: I have no idea whether our sticky approach is working. I know the rate at which acquire customers — it’s one of the metrics the leadership team looks at every Monday — but I have no idea about the crucial other half of the coin, the churn rate.

So that’s my Monday resolution: get the churn rate added to our dashboard, track it weekly or monthly, and start having evidence-based conversations about all of our engines of growth.

Posted in Management | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

To make better decisions, operate on autopilot as much as possible

A few posts back, I wrote about the large number of decisions I need to make as a CEO.

I just came across a piece in this month’s Vanity Fair that puts my decision burden into perspective. In it, Barack Obama explains that there’s a reason he only wears gray or blue suits:

“I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

As others have reflected, making too many decisions about mundane details is a waste of mental energy. Instead, we should operate in autopilot for as many things as possible.

I like this idea a lot. Over the next week, I’m going to try to identify a few things that I can move onto autopilot in order to free up mental space for decision-making.

Posted in Management | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Stress, Fortune magazine, and being a great CEO

Forbes has just published an interesting article on the relationship between stress and decision-making.

I’ve long struggled with stress, but not in the way you might think. Here’s my problem: I get stressed, and I don’t think it’s a problem. In fact, I quite enjoy it. I don’t even call it stress. I call it ‘focus’. When I’m under pressure I ignore all the distractions and concentrate only on what needs to be done.

Other people call it ‘stress’, though. Throughout my career, I’ve received consistent feedback from colleagues that I appear stressed and that it makes them stressed. I’ve heard this from managers, from peers, and most of all from my staff.

Unfortunately,  no-one has ever been able to tell me why this is a bad thing.

I don’t think I  suffer because of stress. I never have insomnia, for example, or physical symptoms any more serious than a fluttery eyelid. As I said above, I enjoy it.  And because of that, I find it difficult to relate to my staff who complain. Deep down, I have sometimes suspected they just want an easy life. And much as I like and even love my staff, it’s not really my job to give them an easy life.

Over time, however, I’ve started to understand that stress affects my staff’s performance as well as their happiness. I’ve started to recognise that not all work is the same. ‘Staccato’ work – small, short tasks – can be done under stress. But ‘legato’ work — slower, longer, more reflective, perhaps more fundamental —  requires staff to feel a sense of control and calm. I do recognise that sometimes my head is not in the right place for this second type of work, and that stress might have something to do with it. And maybe that’s even more true for my staff than for me. 

I can just see some of my peers rolling their eyes at this elementary insight. But it wasn’t elementary to me.

Posted in Management | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Using Google Alerts to drive sales

Most people already know how to use Google Alerts to make sure they’re keeping abreast of news about their own company, their competitors, and their personal brand. (If you haven’t already put in the keywords for these things, I suggest you do that right now.)

Lately, however, I’ve also been experimenting with putting in the names of my top 100 B2B sales targets. I spent a few minutes adding literally every single one of their names to my Google Alerts.

They’re not in the news that often, any of them. However, there’s always a chance that someone will present at a conference, or get mentioned in minutes of a meeting, or be appointed to a new job. Then it’ll show up in my inbox as a Google Alert email.

What’s the point? Mainly I want to have excuses to contact these people. Months ago, when the last Honours list came out, I saw one of my targets received an honour. I sent him a card, and he emailed back to say thank you. Bingo! Contact reignited.

Posted in Recommendations, Sales | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The web’s best business blogs for CEOs

A friend asked me for business blog recommendations the other day, and I told her my top five. In no particular order:

1. TO IMPROVE BUSINESS DECISIONS: Occam’s Razor by Avinash Kaushik. Avinash is a real evangelist for using insights from analytics to make good business decisions, especially anything web-related. I’ve written before that Avinash’s book is on my dresser (and some day I really will finish reading it). His blog is equally useful for real detail on using analytics to win on the web. CEOs of ecommerce firms really should be reading it. CEOs of other sorts of firms might want to leave this one for their Head of Ecommerce…

2.  TO GET BETTER AT SELLING: I really admire the plain speech and wisdom from experience displayed in Sam Reese’s blog. He’s the CEO of Miller Heiman, a specialist sales company, and a great inspiration for any CEO wanting to blog.

3. TO KEEP ABREAST OF MANAGEMENT FADS: The Harvard Business Review blog.I have a love-hate relationship with this one. The posts are always short, which is good. They’re also usually pretty superficial, which isn’t. Rarely do I take away something truly profound. Even worse, they have a habit of overpromising and underdelivering on their blog titles. However as a whole, the blog tends to make me ponder on important topics — motivation, empowerment, customer segmentation, whatever — for a few seconds longer in my morning than I otherwise would. And that alone makes it worth the read.

4. FOR WORK-LIFE BALANCE INSPIRATION: Penelope Trunk. I forward to others Penelope’s emails more than I do any other blogger’s. Even though I frequently disagree with her ‘advice on the intersection of work and life’, it’s always highly readable and sometimes applicable. The comments are great, too. Unlike the HBR’s comments, which tend towards the bland, Penelope’s commenters aren’t afraid to tell her she’s talking out of her arse.

5. TO NAVIGATE SOCIAL MEDIA: In his blog The Sales Lion, Marcus Sheridan writes about using the web to drive business, particularly focussed on social media. You may not like Marcus’s super-hokey style, but if you can stomach it, you’ll find some real wisdom in his posts. He’s all about user engagement, and practices what he preaches — he’s great at writing back to commenters. All up, Marcus has to be one of the nicest business bloggers out there. (‘Plain dang nice’ is probably how he’d put it, although he’s far too humble to write that about himself.)

Posted in CEO training, Recommendations | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Operational planning and fast-growth companies

I’m meant to be coming up with an operational plan.

I HATE this task.

Here’s what I want to say to the guy who told me to make one: “Can’t we just get on and grow the company, rather than focussing on imagining exactly how many widgets we might be selling in two years’ time if ten unknowable factors all turn out exactly as we plan? Can’t we just make decisions for the next couple of months and then pivot if necessary, rather than commit ourselves to forecasts that might as well be based on sales to unicorns and pixies for all their connection to reality? Do I really need to delay contacting potential customers for three days just so I can write a work of fiction to appease you?”

I think it’s going to be a losing battle. My shareholders are not fans of no-planning. They’re used to predictable returns from a mature business, and they’re not very receptive to my argument that a fast-growth business is different.

Here’s why I think a fast-growth business shouldn’t have an operational plan: A fast-growth business needs to be able to change course frequently without any sense of losing face. I’m a big fan of handbag entrepreneur Anya Hindmarch’s advice, ‘Fire yourself every day and come back as your successor’.  Committing to an unnecessary operational plan is the exact opposite of this advice. It tempts you to define implementation of the agreed plan as success in and of itself, even if circumstances have changed or you’ve learned something important. It tempts you (and others) to view deviation from the plan as failure, even when that deviation is completely warranted. It tempts you to stop trying to learn about  your customers, your products, or your geographies, in case you learn something that contradicts the assumptions in the plan. And this is precisely the opposite of what a fast-growing company should be doing, particularly when it’s in uncharted business waters. The main job of the CEO is to help the company learn and flex as it’s delivering to its existing customers. If you’re not changing course, you’re not learning. And if you’re not learning, you might as well stop trying.

I’m tempted to buy my shareholders copies of The Lean Startup, but I think this might lose the diplomatic war in addition to the operational-planning battle.

The worst thing is, I’m not sure I’m right about this. Maybe there’s a whole other side to the coin that I just can’t see right now. Maybe deep down I’m just being lazy, or naive. Maybe it is a good use of my time to plan out where we might be in two years. It’s just that I can’t see any benefit in it.

What do you think?

Posted in Management, Upwards | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Maybe a coach will help me make decisions

One of the hardest things I find about being a CEO is having to make so many decisions.

It’s worth noting that I spend a lot of time thinking about how to create a company in which I hardly need to make any decisions. I want an empowered team who take responsibility for their own work, figure out the answers and live with the consequences. I’m frequently telling people that I’d rather they made decisions and screwed something up every so often than that they didn’t make any decisions at all. I hope they believe me when I say it. The last thing I want is for the company to grind to a halt just because I’m on holiday for a couple of weeks, or overloaded.

But the fact is, there are a lot of decisions only I can make. We don’t have a specialist marketing function, for example, and so the decision of how much money to invest in PR has fallen to me to decide. The decision of how  much to build up dual operations in a single country, versus invest in new countries, also falls to me. We don’t have a good process for developing new products, and only I can decide how we’re going to sort that out. One of my direct reports asked for a pay-rise last week, and I need to decide how to respond. I also need to make some fundamental decisions on where we take the brand. I need to revamp the bonus structure, too, which is basically a series of decisions. On all of these matters, I can get others to do the initial thinking, but I can’t delegate the decision itself.

All these decisions just pile up. A month or so ago, I had six major, urgent decisions on my plate, and I’d done all the other tiny actions on my to-do list. I’d run out of options for procrastination.

So I went to the park, climbed a hill, and sat staring out over the city. I took my list with me. It got cold. I had forgotten to bring a jacket. I made a few scribbles on the page. It started to rain. I sheltered under a tree. I made a resolution on one of the decisions, then decided against it. It got dark. I came home.

And the next morning, I called a coach.

I’m hoping that this coach, who was recommended to me ages ago, will be able to help me make these decisions. If not, I’m a bit stuck. I may need to start flipping coins.

Posted in CEO training, Management | Tagged , | 1 Comment