Leadership: The Short List

Business leaders today waste too much valuable time on the non-essentials. By focusing their to-do lists, executives can go from just surviving to truly performing in the corporate environment.
Apr 01, 2006


Sander A. Flaum
In the midst of preparing my farewell talk for my departure from RA Becker Euro RSCG, the advertising agency where I had been working for a decade and a half, I walked around the office and looked at all the walls. Becker's best work was displayed there: the "Big Ideas," the award-winning campaigns, and the strategies and tactics that drove our clients' products beyond expectations.

You know what wasn't on the walls? Letters from clients praising us for getting in by deadline a mediocre deliverable. I'm being a little facetious, but there were times it felt as though we were fighting an uphill battle just to avoid that letter.

Have you noticed the easy dominance of the non-essentials? What about the countless non-productive meetings, teleconferences, e-mails ad infinitum, and lengthy voicemails about anything and everything? The rub is that we permit ourselves to pour our time into small transactions and the daily maintenance of office life. The unintended consequence of this easy-to-fall-into routine is we become corporate survivors rather than true performers.

Like everyone else, a leader has limited time and energy. Good choices about how to conserve these precious commodities make all the difference between performing exquisitely and just getting by. Throughout my career of observing time-management challenges and triumphs, I have put together a short list of five key "to-dos" that I've come to depend on.

#1 Never leave a task until it's an A+

As my colleagues and staffers have heard time and again from me: "If it ain't great, don't do it, don't show it." Only you know what your truly best work is; don't cheat yourself out of the reward of executing an A+ deliverable.

#2 Redo the to-do list—daily

Refocus your energy and make your performance new every day. Know the essential tasks in front of you and focus on why it is essential that they happen today. In rewriting your list, don't just copy it; rethink it and focus on a positive outcome.

#3 Check messages at specific times

Set specific intervals in your day to reply to e-mails, voicemails, faxes, and even non-essential calls. I'm not impressed by the folks who claim to answer every e-mail they receive within 24 hours. Is that a productive, creative, business-building use of time? Doubt it. If you have a trusted assistant, let that person go through your messages, get rid of the junk mail, expedite when possible, and prioritize the rest.

#4 Close your door

In the same way you schedule time for meeting with colleagues and industry associates, it's important to schedule time for yourself. Put a "Meeting In Progress" sign on your door and go to work with a tough, centered focus. Fully devote yourself to the project at hand. You'll be amazed at your new productivity and the peace that comes from uninterrupted work time.

#5 Enjoy your work and curb the number of meetings

Great performers say that when they are in the flow of their activity, they can actually feel time stop. Find ways to limit extraneous meetings so they don't suck up your valuable time.

To lead effectively (and respectfully of others' schedules), leaders must take control of their own time. Sorry friends, this one can't be delegated. After all, it's not just time management—it's life management. And whose life is it anyway?

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners. He can be reached at