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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How to excel at your job and be home for dinner

When I was a new manager at Goldman Sachs, an executive coach told me: "If you can't get your job done in 10 hours a day, there's something wrong with you—or there's something wrong with your job." I laughed. In my 16 years in finance, I found it hard not admire the 24/7 ethic and even harder to imagine that top results could be produced without it.

But this coach was an advisor to highly respected CEOs. And he forced me to open my eyes and see what really effective executives do to cut time—and stress—for both themselves and the teams they lead.

Intrigued, I dug into the research. I learned how performance and judgement erode when we work too many hours and that motivating people to spend ever-more hours at work is bad for the bottom line. I also talked to hundreds of men and women working in a wide range of executive roles—C-suite jobs, partners at big investment, law, and accounting firms, and middle managers in various industries—to learn how they manage the stress in their lives.

Today's downturn means everyone who still has a job has more work to do. Things have been so uncertain that we all have to work harder because we don't know what will pay off. While "balance" may be a term that makes executives nervous in bad times, it's merely good management to ensure that each hour gets invested in the right things and that we cut all the waste we can. Here are five tips I've found that let executives produce world-class results and still get home for family dinner—most nights.

Measure what matters

With your boss and your subordinates, become very precise about how performance should be evaluated. What are the top five measurable items that drive better results? Many firms spit out lots of reporting, using metrics that don't tell you much because they reflect the priorities of past management, or never were effective at capturing what drives sustained profits.

Researchers at Harvard Business School have found that dramatic gains are made when managers make it clear what specific, measurable work will be rewarded. One case study shows how an underperforming Wall Street research department (ranked No. 15 in the industry) became #1 in three years. A new manager came in and told his team that only numbers—not schmoozing or boasting—would get them paid. For the companies that each analyst covered, how many times per month did the analyst call the CEO, key customers, and suppliers? How often did the analyst see money managers and sales people? How accurate were earnings estimates? But when this metrics-driven manager left, his disciplined approach fell out of use and the research team's ranking plummeted again, to No. 13.

Most firms lack the IT budgets and managerial will to step aside and prioritize what they want employees to do with their time. For instance, sales: What kind of clients are the best long term? Quality: How do you measure it concretely? Profits: What time frame do you look at to make sure you've captured the real costs behind your revenues? (Think mortgage lenders booking ever-more-questionable loans.)

On my own teams, I've found that the effort to develop good metrics is worth it—even if you have to cobble numbers together on a spreadsheet. Your employees can be more efficient because they know what you want them to do. They have more confidence that the system is fair—and this reduction in subjectivity relieves a lot of stress. When the boss wants to know who is or isn't pulling their weight, where the problems and opportunities are, it's all in the numbers.

Cut interruptions and fire drills

Time management experts say it takes us 25% longer to get something done if we get interrupted in the middle. The biggest drains are mismanaged meetings and crises that suck up huge portions of executive time.

A former colleague used to say: "Most of our meetings are spent admiring problems. 'Yeah, that's a big problem.' Or 'that problem's a tough one.' But we're reluctant to actually attack the problem and get rid of it."

Smart executives we talked to were very mindful about making meetings efficient: Some limited meeting times to 20-minute slots; others required short, concrete agendas and clear commitments that you could not come back to the next meeting without X being done.

Researcher Leslie Perlow has run experiments in a variety of demanding environments to see how we can rethink our use of time. Perlow helped one firm design "study halls"—blocking a few hours per week when interruptions were banned—and this allowed a behind-schedule team to make its deadlines. In another study a software team was able to produce the same high-quality product in 40% less time. How? A very different work process encouraged the asking of questions, trust, and collaboration. (It also erased the notion that working longer hours achieved more.)

Perlow's research says we are often seduced by charismatic colleagues who work lots of hours, make numerous errors (and bad judgments) and suck the rest of the team into cleaning up their messes. Emergencies create masses of wasteful work: an irate client, a technology meltdown, or an unexpected product failure. Reward people on your team with a low fire drill rate and make them report their errors and say how they will fix them in writing—even if they are "stars" who think they can't be bothered.

Use your spouse to triage

A lot of working couples told us the opposite of what you often hear, saying instead that having a working spouse cuts stress by providing an expert efficiency advisor at home. One couple, both partners at a top accounting firm, scrutinized each other's schedules every week. Both husband and wife had run parts of the firm. When one spouse said, "I think that meeting's a waste of time; just say 'no,'" the other spouse was willing to listen.

My husband is a real estate developer, and he taught me that if you are really profit-minded, asking yourself questions can free you from some wasteful business norms: "What is the return on this conference call—can I skip it?" "Yes, everyone else does lots of business dinners, but can I get the same result in less time over coffee at Starbucks?" "Do I really need to chime in on that e-mail I was copied on, or will the five other people in the e-mail chain figure it out themselves?"

Try WebEx instead of travel

A McKinsey partner who runs a big business has a working wife and small kids. He told me how he's invested in the best teleconferencing equipment so he can travel a lot less, even though he runs a global group focused on a fast-changing industry.

Though I live in the Bay Area, I ran a team in New York for two years and led a biweekly meeting that started at 7 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. I got my bicoastal travel down to a week per month and got used to getting up at 3:45 AM Pacific Standard Time so I could ingest enough caffeine to follow the agenda for my own meetings. It wasn't ideal, but being organized and using technology saved me and my firm a lot of travel time and expense.

The CEO of a software firm related his theory about why executives should travel less: "Travel distorts how we think about which sales prospects deserve priority. If it's really tough to get somewhere—a lot of plane changes—you feel an even bigger obligation to get something out if it. Your desire to justify your travel time can make you less objective. So you overinvest your time on the far-away client and under-invest in the client in your building who really wants to buy what you are selling."

Trade Venus and Mars for common ground

New workplace research from think tank Catalyst shows how much businesses lose because people worry too much about being manly or womanly. Now that leaner workplaces have less support staff, male executives find themselves needing to do corporate housekeeping, such as serving coffee, booking lunch, and filling administrative functions. And this recession has put more women in the traditionally male role of primary earner.

But fear of being labeled a "wimp" or a "bad mom" causes undue stress for many. Studies say that men suffer from mental and physical health problems when they feel that doing lower-status work typically handled by women puts their manhood in question. And when a female executive leaves a sick child at home, she'll undergo a lot more stress if she believes in "maternal instinct" and fears that her husband can't cover for her. It's a huge labor market inefficiency—worse than any union rules about who can do what—to believe that men can't do certain jobs and women can't do others.

Men and women who see all work as gender-neutral have an easier time adapting to new job and family realities, and so do their employers. Ending the worry about "tough" vs."soft" work helps the bottom line, too. A recent study found that accident rates dropped 84% when a leading oil company retrained its oil rig workers to drop the view that planning for safety isn't macho.

There are many ways to cut executive stress. First we have to imagine it's possible. We need to stop believing that only 24/7 work hours produce success and look to the evidence that there are other ways of producing world-class results. For example, one study of top executives at Fortune 500 companies found that 1/3 of these high performers worked five hours per week less than the others and took more of their vacations—with no apparent cost to performance. If we're willing to rethink our assumptions about what's good practice at work and at home, it's easier to see solutions.

Source:  29 Jul 2009, 1622 hrs IST, BusinessWeek


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