Article by Dr. Pratik P. SURANA
Chief Mentor and Founder
The way that you start the day nearly always sets the tone for the rest of it. If you begin in a rush, feeling frazzled and harassed, it’s very likely that the rest of the day will go the same way—or worse. It’s well worth a little planning and care to start each day well. It may still go downhill, but at least you won’t have begun in a foul mood.
Too many people catapult themselves into each new work-day, fractious and ill-prepared for whatever lies ahead. Since they begin the day feeling miserable and stressed, just about any problems, however minor, have the power to knock them so far off their best that they have almost no chance of reaching the end of the day in anything except the blackest of black moods.
If you’ve been living in the corporate world for some time, you’ve probably attended a training session where one of the exercises was to conduct a “time spent” analysis in order to increase your efficiency. You cracked open your calendar, reviewed how you spent your time for the past week, and identified black holes that were wasting your energy. Maybe you even went so far as to break your activities into categories, separating the “urgent” things from the “important” things and both of these from the “insignificant” things.
Time management studies like these can be interesting, but the findings are almost always the same. Virtually every manager who works through the exercises discovers that he or she is spending too much time on “putting out fires” — dealing with the daily dramas and emergencies around the office — and not enough time thinking and planning for long-term projects that really matter. E-mails, instant messages, phone calls, and that guy from Purchasing who drops in “just for a second” and chews the fat for 45 minutes undo our best-laid plans — not to mention the endless, interminable, usually pointless meetings.
We know all this. Why doesn’t it ever change?
The problem lies in our approach. Time management programs usually focus on your personal productivity, analyzing how you choose to spend your time. This is all fine and dandy, but it misses one essential truth: In an organization that’s devoted to banging pots, you better bang pots or have a damn good reason for not banging them.
That’s why, after the PowerPoint presentation had ended and the trainer went home, you fell back into your old, unproductive rhythms — not because you didn’t agree with the time management expert’s analysis, but because you returned to normal life in the world of The Middle . . . which means doing what you think your boss wants you to do. Bang! Bang! Bang!
Managing Your Managers
In order to take back your time, your life, and your career, you need to make a new kind of change in your approach to self-management. You must step into the realm of managing your managers and thereby altering their expectations related to your time. The goal is to achieve complete alignment between what your bosses want (and perhaps need) you to do and what you believe you really should do.
In the same way that you coordinate the schedule in your Smart Phone and your laptop with the one in your desktop computer, you need to continually coordinate with your bosses to ensure that you are clear, on track, and working from the same plan.
All of this starts with having a happy and supportive boss. And that means a successful boss. Your boss has to be successful. For if he is not, his failure may cast a negative light on everyone on his team. Many potentially great careers have been stalled, not because of the effort of the individual, but because of a boss who failed to make an impact, who failed to demonstrate his own value and the value of those on his team.
The first step in managing your manager is to move beyond your own needs to examine your bosses’ needs. Sounds reasonable — but understanding those needs and figuring out what to do to meet them isn’t usually straightforward. In fact, it’s a challenge in itself, requiring a whole new set of skills most people have never thought about.
Needs Explicit and Needs Implicit
Let’s start by dispelling a common misunderstanding. Lots of people in business assume that “meeting the boss’s needs” means doing exactly what the boss wants them to do — accepting the boss’s vision and direction wholesale. Wrong! This assumption is simple-minded and inaccurate. It leads to managers in The Middle focusing on aligning their lips with their boss’s backsides rather than meeting anyone’s actual needs.
Real “managing upward” demands a more serious and subtle analysis of human needs, which starts with the realization that needs come in two forms — explicit needs and implicit needs.
Explicit needs are easier to understand. They may be stated in the strategic plan promulgated by the company or the division, or they may be announced by your boss whenever the team gets together for the usual pep talk/torture session. They may sound something like this:
“We need to expand our business internationally!”
“We need to create a shipping policy that will save us some money and keep the administrative assistants from running around the office like decapitated chickens every afternoon at 4 p.m. when the FedEx guy makes his last pickup.”
“We need to commerce-enable our Web site before Amazon.com decides to start selling the same kinds of widgets we sell and drives us out of business.”
“We need to hire two more designers, fast, so we’ll have a prayer of getting the fall product line into the stores sometime this year.”
Explicit needs are the kinds of things that make it into the lists of goals you write every year at objective-setting time. They’re the things you tell people you’re working on when they ask. They tend to be the things you are proud of accomplishing (if and when you happen to accomplish one of them).
Implicit needs are more subtle. People don’t talk about them. Sometimes they’re not even aware of them. Most of the time they are things that people would deny if confronted with them. They sound like this:
“Make me look good in front of my boss so that when he gets kicked upstairs he’ll recommend me for his job.”
“Help me demonstrate my creativity by coming up with some ideas for next year’s marketing campaign that I can tweak a little and show off at the next divisional conference as if they were mine.
“Help me feel more like a leader and less like the kid who was always picked last in the schoolyard basketball games.”
“Figure out some way to keep the department running when I’m not around so I can go on vacation for ten days in a row without having to call the office every two hours to make sure the damned place isn’t on fire.”
While explicit needs tend to run a linear path, implicit needs tend be random, triggered by emotion and circumstance. But don’t think of them as flighty and certainly not as insignificant. They are ever-present, tenacious, and can overrule the explicit needs with a swiftness and power that can be awe-inspiring.
It’s a fun exercise to sit down with a sheet of paper and try listing your boss’s implicit needs. It’s also deadly serious. From the first day you meet your new boss through the last day you work together, you need to devote a portion of your time and energy to scoping out his or her implicit needs and defining them with as much precision as possible. Then measure whatever you do against those needs. (Your boss certainly will.)
One implicit need that virtually every boss has (and therefore belongs on the to-do list of every ignited manager) is the need for confidence. Your boss must have confidence that you are working in his best interest and that you are capable of delivering what he needs (both explicitly and implicitly). Fail to maintain this confidence and your boss will most likely drive you crazy — and will often drive you out.
We’ve all been there. The boss who last week simply set a goal and gave us the freedom to carry it out suddenly wants to micromanage every phone call we make this week. Sometimes it’s because they’ve lost confidence in us; other times it’s because their bosses have lost confidence in them, producing a sort of trickle-down anxiety that may end up with you being hypercritical of the dinosaur diorama your nine-year-old makes for science class. Giving your boss a sense of confidence in you is perhaps the most fundamental of all the implicit needs and the one without which no managerial relationship can succeed.
Understanding the implicit and explicit needs of your boss and his bosses sets a course by which you can align your own efforts. When that alignment is clear and accurate, you’re on track to creating an environment in which traction is possible.
Here are some ideas to help you slide smoothly into the day instead, feeling relaxed and ready to take on whatever comes along:
- Get up early. I know that sounds like punishment, and bed always feels especially comfortable first thing in the morning, but you should allow yourself plenty of time to get ready—and then some. Rushing to get ready causes stress and sends you out of the door tense and high on adrenaline. Believe me, beginning on an adrenaline high is going to lead to some pretty awful cold turkey as the day goes on. Work out how much time you need to get ready without hurrying, then add 30 minutes. You still need your sleep, so go to go to bed a little earlier than you do currently. That’s an additional benefit of avoiding a period of manic frenzy every morning.
- Establish a morning ritual to help you do what you need to do easily and avoid forgetting things. The great benefit of rituals is that you can run through them on automatic pilot. So if you’re not much of a morning person, you don’t have to force your brain into a thinking state quite so early to ensure that, when you leave the house, you’re properly dressed and have everything you need to take with you.
- Always eat some breakfast. It’s essential to start the day with your blood sugar in a good state. Sit down and eat something; don’t grab some sugary, high-cholesterol snack as you run down the street. All that will do is give you a quick blood-sugar high, followed by a crash shortly afterwards. You need a breakfast that will provide a steady delivery of sugars to your blood throughout the morning. That way, you’ll avoid the ten o’clock depression—and be much less likely to crave more sugary snacks. A constant see-sawing of blood sugar levels is exhausting in itself and is bound to make you tense and irritable.
- Give yourself plenty of time for your morning commute. Many things can hold you up. If you’re running behind and meet a problem—like a traffic jam or an accident—it’s going to freak you out and send your adrenaline levels into the stratosphere. Hey, you know that the very worst delays always happen on the days when you’re running most behind. Go easy on yourself.
- Vary your route to work as much as you can. Make it as interesting and varied as possible. Look around you. Enjoy the ride. Be present. What you don’t want to do is tune out and spend the time anticipating the problems you’re going to find when you get to work. A problem anticipated and worried over is a problem suffered at least twice.
- When you arrive, have a simple ritual to ease you gently into the work environment. Get a cup of tea or coffee. Greet some friends. Organize your desk. Nothing stressful—just some simple activities to switch your mind easily back into work-day mode. Athletes warm up before an event to avoid needless strains and injuries to cold muscles. You should imitate them.
- Take 10 minutes to set the day’s priorities. Nothing is more stressful than being busy all day and reaching the end of it tired—then realizing you’ve accomplished precisely nothing on the very items that you know are most important. How many times have you done this? Well, don’t do it again. Decide what you need to do, write it down, then stick to your game plan, If emergencies push you off track, get back on it as soon as you can. Always do what is most important, not what either seems most urgent or happens to be jumping up and down in front of you. Calm application to genuine priorities is most likely to allow you to end the day feeling satisfied with what you have done.
- Never, never start your day with distractions, like checking e-mail. It eats up time and leaves you feeling pressured and stressed when you snap out of it and discover most of the morning has been spent on useless trivia.
- If you aren’t sure what needs to be done first, follow this simple rule of thumb: look to see whatever needs to be done next and do it. Repeat until the end of the day. the result will be faster, more secure progress than you ever believed possible.
Above all, make a gentle start on the day allows you to preserve your energy for whatever’s still to come. Don’t treat each day like a sprint and hurl yourself into it headlong. Don’t dither and procrastinate and try to avoid starting at all. A steady, middle way is pretty much always the best. Most days are middle-distance races. Some are marathons. It’s amazing how far you can get through either kind without strain or hassle, if you keep plodding steadily along.
Happy Mondays and Week Ahead!!