I have long believed that whilst we should not count every hour in the day, we should try and make every hour in the day count. We are all given the same 24 hours in every day regardless of who or what we are, and while we can’t actually manage time, we can definitely take control of how we spend the time that we have available.

Author: Mosborne01; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Mosborne01; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

There are many opportunities in a manager’s day to waste time, and part of good time use is the ability to recognise and minimise these as much as possible.

Here are 10 of the worst time wasters:

Meetings. We seem to have become obsessed with holding meetings. Whether it is in the name of consensus, information sharing or just weak management, it is now estimated that managers attend on average about 60 meetings per month (see “Meetings bloody meetings” posted April 18, 2011). You should refuse to attend meetings that do not have an obvious business benefit as an outcome of the meeting, remembering that the larger the number of attendees, the less likely is it that the meeting will be capable of achieving anything worthwhile. If by some fluke of chance something important does occur, someone will tell you about it anyway. Definitely avoid going to any pre-meeting meetings.

Author: Awersowy; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Awersowy; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Emails. Emails now seem to be accorded the same level of urgency as does the discovery of a blood clot, thus requiring immediate attention. As most managers on average now need to handle somewhere between 200-300 emails daily, email management is critical to get under control. You should never do them first thing when you are at your most creative, and should only handle emails in a minimum number of pre-planned time slots during the day. Bulk handling of emails makes you more concise and bloody minded and therefore much more efficient in their handling (see “Emails bloody emails” posted April 21, 2011).

Lack of planning. No plan or a weak plan will always require rethought, redraft and repair. It is a much better use of your time to allocate a sufficient amount of time to the planning phase before embarking on execution. Planning the future is a critical element of a manager’s responsibilities, yet most managers spend less than 10% of their time doing so. Anyway, if you can’t find the time to build a proper plan in the first place, how will you be able to find the time to do it over ?

Procrastination. The longer that you put off doing something, the longer it will take you to do it when you finally realise that you have no choice anymore, and generally the quality will suffer because of the urgency to complete the task (see “The sooner you fall behind, the more time you have to catch up” posted October 31, 2011). One example I see often is in preparing a speech or presentation. The later that you leave it, the more you will tend to rely on the PowerPoint slides rather than on honing the messages that you should be leaving with your audience. Shakespeare rightly said “Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends”.

Lack of delegation. You can’t do it all, and allocating tasks and responsibilities to your people early will give them a chance to not only plan and execute well, but will also give them an opportunity to learn and develop. However, you must ensure that you give them the necessary authority needed for successful execution, rather than only passing over the responsibility.

Crisis management. Every time you have to drop everything to address “an alligator snapping at your heels”, you not only have to delay your ability to focus on the important rather than the urgent, but you also tend to disrupt your entire schedule. You must have a procedure in place in your team for crisis handling that only involves you on a “must have” basis. If you are fortunate enough to have an Executive Assistant, this is a wonderful learning opportunity for them.

Author: Tlcmgmt (own work); GFD license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Tlcmgmt (own work); GFD license; via Wikimedia Commons

Interruptions. People dropping in unannounced, and unplanned phone calls, interrupt trains of thought and are disruptive to controlling your task management. Plan and schedule your “open door” times and let people know when you will be available. I have found that even an hour or two spread across the day for drop-ins is more than enough, but only if people are aware of these times well in advance.

Reading proposals and business plans. Early in my management career I would spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get through voluminous business plans and proposals, trying to find the relevant and critical details such as cost versus value, usually well hidden away from the enthusiasm of the executive summary. I changed all this by asking the authors to come into my office and read their plan to me instead. It was amazing how quickly they discarded this suggestion and instead moved quickly to outlining the key elements of their proposal. I could then decide if I needed to go into more detail.

Not saying no. You must learn the art of saying no to things that are not critical, whichever direction these requests may come from. This is particularly true in a complex matrix organisation, where many requests are made only to justify someone’s existence in the matrix. Say no to requests that will have no benefit to the business or when they can negatively impact the success of your team.

Leaving the sanctity of your desk. Moving away from your “cone of silence” seems to be an immediate signal for people to come and chat to you about the latest rugby scores or the ailments of their children. A recent survey suggests that chatting to co-workers takes up about 15% of an average working day. This is particularly true for smokers who take regular breaks outside, and for coffee addicts like me. I am not suggesting aloofness or unfriendliness, but installing my own Nespresso coffee machine in my office saved me an incredible amount of time by removing my need to visit the office coffee and natter corner.

Author: LA2 (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: LA2 (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Time is like a handful of sand. The lighter you grasp it, the faster it runs through your fingers. ~anon



William Faulkner (1897-1962), American writer and Nobel Prize winner said “The Swiss are not a people so much as a neat, clean, quite solvent business”.

I am in Klosters in Switzerland for two weeks of skiing with my family, and it is almost impossible to not see how right Faulkner was, particularly when it comes to neatness, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the way that the Swiss put so much effort into cutting and stacking their firewood.



Not only is this an art form, but the Swiss believe that as a wood pile tends to be public, it also says as much about the person who has created it as does their garden, their letterbox or the car that is sitting in the driveway.

For example, a hard-working, serious man will stack straight and square with true symmetry, which will create a woodpile that will stand well and look good, whereas a lazy person will just leave all the wood in the pile that is dumped on delivery, or will start to stack but will never finish. A timid man will build a low stack with the larger pieces on the bottom and the smaller on top, whereas a socially or politically ambitious person will make his stack very high with large pieces on top just to show off to those who pass by. A person who puts the stack too far from the house, even if the stack is to be admired, is obviously a non-thinking person, as collecting the wood in the middle of a snowy winter will be harder than it should be.



It is obviously not easy, nor straightforward, being Swiss with a pot-belly stove or a wood burning fireplace.

There are some basic rules that must be observed in building a suitable firewood stack, and as I began to understand these, I also couldn’t help but notice that they are not very different to the basic rules that need to be observed to be a successful manager.

These woodpile stacking rules are:

– Do not put your base directly on the earth, but put your wood on a prepared base that will be stable and that will be dry to prevent bottom rot.

– Make stable end towers. It is important to find the right pieces to fit well together to be able to withstand shifting and thus keep the integrity of the stack.

– Remember that you will need to allow for different shapes and sizes, and allow for thick and thin ends that will taper.

– Do not forget that wood shrinks as it dries, and if one side gets more sun than another it will dry and shrink faster, and this can cause the stack to lean and even collapse.

– Do not stack too tightly but allow for airflow to assist in drying.

– Build the stack close to where it will be used.

– Protect the stack from the elements with a cover such as wooden shingles or black plastic.

There are many more, but these are the salient ones.

The parallels that I see with capable management are as follows:

– You can only build a successful team at any level if you first prepare the base, meaning that you need to be able to build the values that will drive team behaviour both internally and with every part of the ecosystem that the team will be in contact with. A team that does not have integrity, being “what is thought is what is said is what is done” will not succeed for long.

– You must ensure that you protect the integrity and stability of the team by finding the right people to put together to ensure that the team can overcome shifting, whether this is in the markets that you address or the competitive landscape that you work within.

– For a team to be strong, it is important that you allow for “different shapes and sizes”. Having a team that is made up of clones of the leader may make the team easier to “stack” and direct, but ultimately will not create a team that will drive change, creativity and innovation. It is important that the team has some players who have “knots”, and while this will make them “hard to stack”, they will look at situations differently to the herd, and will question decisions where others may fear to tread.

– As a manager it is important that you ensure that all parts of your team get an equal amount of “sunshine”. You have to spend as much time and effort addressing those that struggle as you do spending time with those who are doing well. If one part of your team or organisation is allowed to “dry out” it will affect the success of the entire team.

– You cannot control your people too tightly, but must allow for “airflow”, meaning that you must give your people the room to put their stamp on their job and on the team. Nobody has as much ownership in something as when they have helped to build it, and building ownership builds commitment and engagement.

– A good manager will build his team as close as possible to where it will be used, being both internal and external customers. Most companies will have emblazoned on their crest that “the customer is number 1”, but from what I have seen, in many companies the customer would be lucky to make it into the “Top-10”.

– It is important that the manager protects his team “from the elements”. This does not mean that a manager should keep information from his people, as keeping your team well informed on what is happening in the company removes the need for rumour and gossip. It does however mean that the role of a manager is to ensure that s/he protects the team from interruptions, distractions and the politics that exist in most companies, so that the team can get on with doing their job, and doing it well.

The Swiss may well be the neatest nation on earth, but I believe that the reason that they are so successful is that when they commit to doing something they commit to doing it well, even if it is something as mundane as building a firewood stack or as complex as building a successful banking or pharmaceutical industry.


I believe that one of the key critical skills of anyone in a management role is the ability to be able to solve problems, despite my loving the fact that Albert Einstein said “Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them”.

Photograph by Oren Jack Turner; via Wikimedia Commons

Photograph by Oren Jack Turner; via Wikimedia Commons

In this context, and assuming that genius is generally a rare commodity at any time and at any level in management, it is important that we start off by defining what is a problem.

Too many managers have a limited view of a problem, believing that it is either an issue that a subordinate brings to his superior for resolution or an obvious “fix-it” situation. These are important and should not be discarded, as in the words of Colin Powell

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

I feel that problems cover a wider area of definition than those that come to you from subordinates for resolution, and that in the same way that a question will generally have more than one answer, a problem will have more than one correct solution, and that not all problems are the same.

Here are a few categories that I see:

1. A problem can be an opportunity for improvement. It can be a situation of “opportunity knocking” or a fortunate stroke of good luck. I was very fortunate early in my career, when at the age of 25 my boss at the time, who was the 45 year old senior analyst at our company (when I was senior programmer), was told by the IT manager, who was being promoted to company controller, that he would be his replacement. The issue was that my boss did not want the job, creating an immediate succession problem, so he recommended me for the role instead. Luckily, I had been doing a part-time Business Administration course at the local university, and the company senior management decided that this was an indication that I was someone who was serious about a management career. I was immediately sent off to the US headquarters to join a three month management programme that the company ran annually in conjunction with one of the US universities. I came back to NZ as the new IT Manager, but one who had at least been somewhat prepared for the role. For me it was a major stroke of luck and the start of my management career for the next 40 years. I was very lucky that this opportunity came to me so early in my life, but rather than waiting for a good stroke of fate to put an opportunity like this at your feet, I have found that successful people tend to seek out problems to solve, rather than just wait for them to be presented.

2. A problem can be the difference between the current state and a goal, which can result from situations like a new way of thinking, a change in market conditions such as the way that countries like China and India have exploded onto the world stage, or a new innovation from a competitor. When you can define where you are today and where you want to be, the problem is then to define the steps of how you will get there, usually and most importantly for success, from a myriad of possibilities. I was working for Digital in the late 1970s when it announced the 32 bit Vax minicomputer and VMS operating system. This was a terrible blow to arch competitor Data General who were still trying to sell 16 bit technology. DG founder Edson de Castro knew that he had only a short amount of market tolerance to be able to come up with a credible competitive solution. Their ability to achieve this is well documented in an interesting and readable book written by Tracy Kidder in 1981 called “The soul of a new machine”, which documents how a DG engineering team worked under immense pressure and mind-boggling speed to be able launch their 32 bit Eclipse minicomputer in answer to Digital in 1980. Knowing where you are and where you need to be and then marshalling the resources and plans to get there is a critical skill of good managers.

Author: Emiliano Russo; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Emiliano Russo; via Wikimedia Commons

3. A problem can be the recognition of a present imperfection and the possibility of a better future in its resolution. This recognition is a wonderful opportunity to challenge yourself as a manager, whether to become personally better at some required future skill yourself or to prepare your team to be able to better handle situations that exist today or are looming as challenges for the future. This ability to “build the future” is a critical skill for successful management and why I continually stress the fact that “learning is a journey not a destination”, and that we never reach a state of perfection, but that our abilities to recognise “imperfections” and address them is key to our success.

Only once we have understood and defined fully the problem(s) that we face, can we then put in place plans to address them. I find that too many managers find it significantly easier to attack the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause of the problem itself. For example, it is much easier to try and solve a lack of skills in a team by rushing towards external recruiting, rather than looking at why the current team that is in place (and which presumably was successful for quite some time in the past) has not advanced significantly enough over time, in its skills and knowledge, to be able to now address current needs. External recruiting will then only be a short term fix, as the same lack of focus on people development and preparation will once again create a lack of capability in the team in the future. This will once again necessitate the need for external recruitment, and so the pattern of solving the symptom rather than the problem will keep recurring, with the same solution being applied by a manager who believes that he is doing the right thing.

Good managers are good problem seekers, good problem definers and good problem solvers.

Anyway, for those in management, James A. Lovell (former NASA astronaut and commander of the Apollo 13 mission) got it right when he said

“Be thankful for problems. If they were less difficult, someone with less ability might have your job.”

Author: NASA; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: NASA; via Wikimedia Commons


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer and poet said

“Concentration is the secret of strength in politics, in war, in trade, in short, in all the management of human affairs.”

Like Emerson, I have long believed that a clear focus is one of the critical elements for success.

I am an admirer of Malcolm Gladwell, British-Canadian author who in his book “Outliers” talks about the fact that to become an expert at something you need to spend 10,000 hours of practice to reach the highest levels of competency (see “First secret of success” posted September 16, 2010). His examples include Bill Gates and Scott McNeally founders of Microsoft and Sun Microsystems respectively who were fortunate enough to get to start their time at university at the same time as interactive computing had arrived, enabling them to put in their 10,000 hours of practice long before they launched their business endeavours in information technology. Previously students had had limited access to the university mainframes via batching their work, and hence would have found it hard to accumulate their 10,000 hours of practice. His other examples include Tiger Woods whose father Earl introduced him to golf at the age of 2. “Tiger” first broke 80 at the age of 8 and broke 70 on a regulation golf course at the age of 12. During his youth, his father made him practice his golf for at least 2 hours every day, and by the time he turned professional in 1996 at the age of 21, he had been playing and practising his golf for a lot more than 10,000 hours.

Author: Kris Krüg; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Kris Krüg; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I accept that just practising for 10,000 hours is not necessarily enough to become an expert, as I know people, for example, who have been in management roles for more than 10,000 hours and who appear to have learned very little about managing people in that time, but I do believe that focussing on doing something well is a critical starting point for success.

As I do strongly believe that focus and concentration are keys to success, I now find it somewhat worrying that not many managers I meet appear to exhibit these qualities, most of them finding that today’s market conditions make it hard for them to do so.

I recently spent some time on some executive coaching with a senior VP of a large company whose boss had suggested to him that he could do with having some sessions with a personal coach. I spent a two hour session with him in his office and found it interesting to see him fidget and move from one task to another without focussing on what we were both there to try and achieve. We had had a previous session away from his office and he had been somewhat more focussed, although he did sneak regular looks at his smartphone during our discussions, to the point where I eventually walked over to him, picked it up off the arm of his armchair, and popped it into his briefcase. I prefer most sessions to be away from the office, but I do find it worthwhile to observe “my charges” for some time in their actual work environment. During our session, he found four reasons to get up and pass some tasks to his personal assistant (all of which he adamantly justified because of their urgency), and he also couldn’t resist taking surreptitious, if somewhat guilty, looks at his PC every time that a “ping” would alert him to the arrival of a new email. I find this obsession with email being accorded the right of immediacy to be one of the biggest killers of successful time management, and hence focus, today (see “Fifth secret of time management” posted November 11, 2010). We are working specifically now on trying to get him to focus more on the key elements of his management responsibilities that are significantly more critical to his success than his ability to handle emails and practice timesharing to an illogical extreme.

He is not alone, and I come across many executives who are so busy trying to do so many things at once, that they have lost sight of what they need to really focus on to be successful.

I find a similar lack of focus in many managers in small companies, when deciding on a business strategy.

There is so much apparent opportunity out there that one can address today, but the skill for a small business is to understand where to deploy the resources needed to be successful, remembering that unless you are backed by Croesus (King of Lydia from 560-547BC, who was so rich that he would have every guest depart with as much gold as they could carry), you can’t afford to be everywhere, and be all things to all people, at once. I have worked with companies who have only just scratched the surface of their home market, but who want to talk to me about moving into the US and Chinese markets overnight, simply because of their size and market hype on opportunities that exist there. Yes, they are large markets, and yes they are potentially great opportunities, but I have seen too many really good small European companies rush into the US or Asian markets too early, spend an inordinate amount of money and resources doing so, and after a couple of years come slinking back with their tails between their legs, blaming bad luck. However I have always liked the definition of good luck as being when preparation and opportunity meet.

Source: Beata Lejman; PD-Art license; via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Beata Lejman; PD-Art license; via Wikimedia Commons

Scott McNeally called it “putting all the wood behind one arrow”. The key to real success is to focus on the critical tasks that are needed to be successful and to concentrate on doing them well, no matter how many attractive, attention getting shiny baubles pop up to tempt us. Only once these are mastered can one move on to the preparation needed to now include the ability to focus on new opportunities.

Author: Pearson Scott Foresman; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Pearson Scott Foresman; via Wikimedia Commons

Anthony Robbins, American self-help author quite rightly said

“Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives”.