What's The Goal? When Do You Need It?
Before beginning my new role as Chief of Staff at Mojiit in a couple of weeks I have been helping some dear friends expand their premium hospitality company into 4 new markets. That's glorified speak for I've been moving furniture, making beds, cleaning, shopping, jeuje-ing, etc. in a Groundhog Day scenario for the past 2 weeks in Marina del Rey, Philadelphia, and soon Washington DC and Memphis. It's been physically taxing but has actually been an incredible lesson in spotting and creating efficiencies when- and wherever I can. One of the business partners in Philadelphia, a brilliant 23-year-old whiz kid, responsible for creating a next-gen reservation system provided me with a bit of an epiphany during one of our geeky conversations.
We were chatting about Trello and other software designed to make our lives easier by helping us prioritize our task lists and "create calm from chaos." In hospitality, there are many moving pieces that all have to be choreographed and completed within a very tight timeframe. Add to it, when guests checkout late or show up early, appliances break, damage occurs to furniture, etc. those timeframes need to adjust to accommodate. As we were talking through his latest coding exercise trying to stack rank tasks by importance something became blindingly clear to me. Our focus, specifially in companies, is on the wrong thing.Especially as the message from the Boardroom is distributed down the hierarchy.
By the time most of us "get the message" from on high it's already been diluted and manipulated into a set of tasks for us to complete and be held accountable. We take these tasks and begin working on them, choosing the most urgent first, and then the remainder according to what we perceive as the most important. Where I believe most businesses fail their employees is not clearly defining the goal.
When I'm given a task, my first two questions are: "What's the goal?" and "When do you need it?" Simple as that. As the smart, productive, experienced professional specifically hired for my role, this is all the information I need in order to figure out the most efficient path to the solution. What annoys me to no end is when I'm given a set of random tasks to complete and have no idea what the ultimate goal is. My time is valuable as is my Exec's. Efficiency is like breathing for a C-suite EA. And often my breath is taken away by tasks that have no clearly defined purpose or critical result. It makes me cranky and referring to myself in third person.
I remember sitting in on a C-level leadership team meeting at my previous company and marveling at all of the brilliant ideas being conceived at the table. The energy was electrifying and it was cool to see the company's most senior execs in the organization so pumped. Once that meeting concluded, notes were amalgamated, emails and meeting invites sent to the next rung down the ladder, I asked to audit that meeting as well. The next meeting filled with SVPs down to Senior Directors was a completely different (read: disappointing) experience. Once the facilitator began talking about the new initiatives from the previous C-suite meeting the eye rolling began. The meeting became more about how taxed the teams already were with other tasks and how these new initiatives would simply get thrown onto the pile until people could get through the previous meeting's list of tasks. As managers kept bitching and moaning about these new tasks all I could think was, "Wait...did you even listen to the goal? And why isn't that your focus vs. all the tasks your teams are currently working on?" By the end of the meeting the goal, as a focus, had been completely abandoned and everyone left the room having snarky sidebar conversations about their teams' ever-growing task lists. Instead of being excited by the incredible initiatives the C-suite had just conceived, a majority of the Senior Managers were more annoyed by yet more work being heaped on them and their direct reports. And the ones actually excited by the goal were peer pressured into silence. That experience made me realize a couple things:
1. A company's success is only as strong as the communication loop between the C-suite and the next couple of tiers down the hierarchy.
If your senior managers aren't just as enthusiastic as the C-suite about the goals of your company, you're basically f*cked. They are the ones who empower those in the trenches who physically shovel the coal into the locomotive. If the senior managers aren't defining the goal, ad nauseam, and including their direct reports in the process of achieving the goal then your company is filled with a bunch of feral cats wildly completing a bunch of tasks that likely aren't that important to the goal itself. I've seen this a ton in the engineering-heavy tech companies where I've worked and it's not pretty. Primarily, it leads to an employee burnout cycle from rushing through mountains of tasks only to hear there's been a pivot from on high and a new mountain of tasks assigned, often to be completed within the same timeframe as the previous. Everything that they'd been working on was for naught. Rinse and repeat. Attrition. Attrition. Attrition.
2. The C-suite is a bit too naïve and trusting that their goals are being disseminated with the same energy, focus and accuracy as they were conceived.
There was a palpable level of complacency in the C-suite of the last couple of companies where I've worked. My last CEO was a brilliant man and taught me a ton in the short time that I was with the company. What often made me kinda sad (for him) was the fact that he had so much energy and zeal and often came up with these brilliant ideas. But by the time they left the C-suite and were handed off to the next rung down, the message already had eye rolls attached. Senior managers' knee jerk reactions would be to complain vs. really embracing the goal. Workers, already running uphill, would get the news about more work coming down the pipe and, essentially, become paralyzed and emotional vs. excited and tactical. I witnessed this over and over, often while buried in my own mountain of tasks and losing sight of the goal, and I eventually made the decision to leave the company because of it. My point here is that the C-suite allows a chasm to form by not being far more proactive in holding their next tier down accountable. More importantly, they leave the goal in the hands of people who are more concerned about completing a bunch of tasks than the goal itself. Often the goal is something that can be accomplished in 1/3 the time if it's kept front-and-center throughout the chain of command. But managers are typically so process-oriented and focused on the minutiae that they fall victim to the emotion vs. being strategic and flexible in their approach and implementation. That transfers down the org adding more emotion and less critical thinking and usually ends up handcuffing employees with piles of useless tasks that don't support the goal at all. As an exercise, do an audit of your company's last initiative from the Boardroom down to the most junior engineer or project manager. I think you'll be shocked by how diluted the message had become, the ridiculous amount of time wasted, and the physical and emotional toll it took on teams all the way down the chain. A simple anonymous survey of "the workers" will bring all of that to the fore. This is a C-suite issue. They hold the reins.
The horses will always run like a MF but without the proper destination and input, where to?
Focusing on the goal throughout the entire process of completing it truly allows everyone in the chain the opportunity to create their own efficiencies in support. "What's the goal?" and "When do you need it?" are the only two questions that should matter. They are simple and powerful tools to help you dynamically stack rank the tasks needed to complete your individual contribution to the goal. Once employees get so bogged down with a bunch of tasks handed to them by someone who really isn't on board with the goal, there's already a cancer of inefficiency created that will continue to spread and impede progress throughout the chain. The C-suite must take the reins with a much firmer grasp, be far more transparent, and transfer that energy from the top all the way to the bottom [with enthusiasm] and constantly realign their teams toward the goal until it is reached. If by doing this goals are still not being met, you can rest assured that there's have a cancer in the midst, often a rung or two down the ladder, that needs to be eradicated. After 25 years as a C-suite Executive Assistant, I can literally walk into a company, sit in on about 3 meetings, and tell you exactly where your bottlenecks are and who needs to go. 100% accuracy so far. One day I'll make a consulting career of it.
Achieving corporate goals takes focus, transparency, and consistent messaging. A breakdown in any of these components will create unnecessary impediments in the process of completing them. Managers begin improvising. Emotion trumps strategy and dynamism. And tons of manhours and money are wasted in managing a bunch of tasks that aren't critical to the completion of the goal. The larger the company = less transparency = more wasted time and money.
Define the goal.
Do it again.
If you're in the chain ask your manager, "What's the goal?" and "When do you need it?" If they are unclear (or they just suck) go around and ask a C-suiter directly. Once you know the objective work backward from that goal and time expectation and define for yourself what you need to do in order to complete your individual contribution to that goal, even if it includes others. If another link in the chain is slacking or unclear on the goal, offer to help once you've completed your tasks. If we would all align around these tenets, our companies would run with insane efficiency, transparency and levels of productivity. There would about 25% less necessary headcount, managers would stay nimble and focused, and employees down the chain would feel empowered to contribute far more proactively knowing that they actually have control over how they contribute vs. that proverbial stack of paper being plopped on their desks as they're packing their backpacks to leave for the night.
"What's the goal?"
"When do you need it?"
Work backward from there, tune out everything else and you'll achieve the goal in record time and with far less tasks and BS work clogging the pipeline and impeding your progress.
C-suite: make sure your goals AND your passion permeate throughout all ranks of your company. And really hold your senior leadership team to the standard you've set in the Boardroom. Don't just hand over the reins expecting your horses to remain focused on the destination while running through an orchard of apple trees. They'll never get there on time.