You come back from vacation and start your game of catch-up. This is an especially challenging game if you’re a senior leader. You have hundreds, maybe thousands of emails, a backlog of voicemails, and a to-do list that doubled or tripled in length while you were away. You need to respond to the pent-up needs of clients, managers, colleagues, employees, and vendors. You need to fight fires. You need to regain control.
So you do your best to work through the pileup, handling the most urgent items first, and within a few days, you’re caught up and ready to move forward. You’re back in control. You’ve won.
Or have you?
If that’s your process, you’ve missed a huge leadership opportunity.
What’s the most important role of a leader? Focus.
As a senior leader, the most valuable thing you can do is to align people behind your business’s most important priorities. If you do that well, the organization will function at peak productivity and have the greatest possible impact. But that’s not easy to do. It’s hard enough for any one of us to be focused and aligned with our most important objectives. To get an entire organization aligned is crazy hard.
Once in a while, though, you get the perfect opportunity. A time when it’s a little easier, when people are more open, when you can be more clear, when your message will be particularly effective.
Coming back from vacation is one of those opportunities. You’ve gotten some space from the day to day. People haven’t heard from you in a while. Maybe they’ve been on vacation too. They’re waiting. They’re more influenceable than usual.
Don’t squander this opportunity by trying to efficiently wrangle your own inbox and to-do list. Before responding to a single email, consider a few questions:
What’s your top imperative for the organization right now? What will make the most difference to the company’s results? What behaviors do you need to encourage if you are going to meet your objectives? And, perhaps most importantly, what’s less important?
The goal in answering these questions is to choose three to five major things that will make the biggest difference to the organization. Once you’ve identified those things, you should be spending 95% of your energy moving them forward.
How should you do it?
1. Be very clear about your three to five things. Write them down and choose your words carefully. Read them aloud. Do you feel articulate? Succinct? Clear? Useful? Will they be a helpful guide for people when they’re making decisions and taking actions?
2. Use them as the lens through which you look at – and filter – every decision, conversation, request, to do, and email you work through. When others make a request, or ask you to make a decision, say them out loud, as in “Given that we’re trying to accomplish X, then it would make sense to do Y.”
Will that email you’re about to respond to reinforce your three to five priorities? Will it create momentum in the right direction? If so, respond in a way that tightens the alignment and clarifies the focus by tying your response as closely as you can to one or more of the three to five things, as you have written them.
If you look at an email and can’t find a clear way to connect it to the organization’s top three to five priorities, then move on to the next email. Don’t be afraid to de-prioritize issues that don’t relate to your top three to five things. This is all about focus, and in order to focus on some things, you need to ignore others.
You’ve got this wonderful opportunity, a rare moment in time when your primary role and hardest task – to focus the organization – becomes a little easier. Don’t lose it.
Coming back from vacation isn’t simply about catching up. It’s about getting ahead.
Originally posted on Harvard Business Review.