Boss Lesson #2: Owning Your Priorities
This is my site Written by Alora on December 22, 2008 – 10:11 am

For the past four years, I’ve kept a sign over my desk that reads:

“I don’t have time” = “I haven’t made it a priority.”

I’ve written about this before, but never to explain the origins of this epiphany. The credit for this lesson goes to a sharp, good-humored, understatedly charismatic man named Robert. As with both of my other two bosses, I learned a great many things from Robert; but unlike the other two, Robert was not my direct manager, so much of what I learned was, by definition, at more of a distance than with either John or Dave.

When he first joined the company, Robert made it a priority to spend his first several weeks meeting with employees from all around the organization to interview them and understand their perspective on what things worked and what things needed to be changed. He resisted jumping to conclusions or giving any one-off opinion too much weight. He was very deliberate about his approach, and very disciplined in not allowing our eternally chaotic, fire-fighting pace to rush him through his analysis or — worse yet — convince him to cut it short. At the end of his analysis period, he met with the organization to review his findings. While he covered a number of points in that presentation, the one that had the biggest impact on me was his observation that he’d never before been in an organization where so many people so often lamented “not having enough time” as why they were unable to get done all the things they wanted/needed to accomplish.

Robert won me over as a huge, life-long fan in that moment, because his response to that organization-wide habit was to point out that by saying “I don’t have time,” what we are really saying is, “I haven’t made it a priority.” This hit me like a lightening bolt and completely changed the way I look at time management ever since.

He was absolutely right: as an organization we had a culture that liked to “blame a lack of time” for why things didn’t get done. We had become lazy in that we were abdicating responsibility for making any real decisions about how we were spending our time. We were complicit in our own chaos and we didn’t even realize it. In that moment, Robert forever altered my own awareness over the relationship between my time and my priorities. To this day, you will almost never hear me say that “I don’t have time.” What you will hear me say is that “it’s not a priority.”

And while that is not as warm-and-fuzzy a sentiment (and one that some people do occasionally find offensive), it is a sentiment born of a sense of accountability. I now take responsibility for how I spend my time. And while I do not always get to chose my priorities (at work especially), I acknowledge that I have allowed outside influences the right to prioritize tasks for me, and as such, I am still both responsible and accountable. For me this is was a profoundly empowering realization that moved me from being a victim of chaos to taking control of my time, and owning responsibility for the decisions that lead to my daily/weekly/etc. priority list. Even when I am still rushed, or still don’t have enough time to get everything done that I would like to, I no longer shirk the blame for that onto the clock.

The second powerful lesson I learned from Robert in that company meeting was actually a delayed lesson that wouldn’t truly be clear until years later, when I would watch new executives join an organization. For all the times I have seen this happen since all those years ago when I watched Robert do it, not once have I watched a single leader be as deliberate and conscientious about studying the environment before he started making changes. Time and time again, I have found myself disappointed in potentially impressive new leaders who come in with guns blazing, shooting off orders and shaking things up before they have the first clue how things are currently working, before they understand the culture and the background that led us to where we are in the moment. And each time that happens, I’ve watched leaders make unnecessary messes out of a desire to clean up ones they assumed they understood (and rarely did).

Over the years, I have thought back to Robert’s deliberate strategy and lamented that more leaders were not as willing to admit that they needed a 360 degree view in order to have the best information at their disposal before making decisions for future change. I’ve watched leader after leader take the word of other executives when it comes to ‘what’s wrong,’ and that is never the whole story. And invariably the resulting changes are disappointing, ineffectual and often result in breaking many of the things that were actually working.

While I’m sure that, if asked, Robert would probably say that he would have liked to have been able to implement more changes than he ultimately did while he was there. The fact is that company meeting was just an example of one small way in which he successfully implemented a change that wasn’t even on his To Do List. He changed the way I thought. It was such a small thing, but the impact on me was huge. And when it comes to implementing change, sometimes the most impactful changes are the smallest, and most personal.