An entrepreneur friend of mine has a sign on the wall behind his desk. It reads: “When you're up to your backside in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your goal is to drain the swamp.”
If you ask him why he posted this sign, his response is simple, direct, and illustrative of every leader’s most significant challenge: “My days are filled with discussions about things that don’t really matter, dealing with urgent issues, and just trying to get it all done.”
In my work with credit union leaders this issue surfaces regularly. When leaders attempt to discuss issues from a strategic perspective, the discussion frequently gets bogged down. It happens because people have a natural tendency to focus on things they understand and can impact, i.e., the operational stuff. They prefer to avoid consideration of the more challenging and less certain, i.e., the long-term approaches and solutions.
The result: The leader’s strategic conversations end up in the weeds.
Many of these same leaders lament the fact that they are constantly being pulled into solving seemingly urgent problems that really don’t require their input. They say that they wish their staffs would just make the decisions and leave them out of it, but they continue to get sucked into the vortex and caught up in the discussions.
The result: The leader’s time is spent fighting fires.
If you talk with these leaders about how much of their time they actually spend thinking and leading strategically, they readily admit that it is much less than it should be. Many acknowledge spending much of their time on things that don’t really matter from a long-term strategic perspective. Some suggest that they have become really good at doing things that don’t matter in the big picture.
The result: The leader’s focus is on things that don’t really matter.
So what can a credit union leader do?
After all, you are responsible for making sure that the day-to-day issues are addressed in an effective manner—those actions ultimately support the pursuit of the current strategy. You are responsible for supporting and serving their teams—making sure the desired results are achieved in every situation. And you are fully occupied with the oversight of the operational side of the business.
Here’s a five step program that may help:
STEP ONE. Shift Your Mindset. You are the leader of the credit union, (or your department, division, or branch). That means your job is to focus on the big picture, not the details. When you find yourself being drawn into the weeds, step back, refocus the team on the objective, and walk away. Be sure that expectations are clearly defined and that the desired outcome and deadline are known, then hold the team accountable.
Action Question: Have the expectations been defined, the responsibilities assigned, and the deadlines set for the projects my teams are working on?
STEP TWO. Ask More Questions. When your people bring your problems, remember that your job is not to solve them, but rather to help them find the solution. It is all too tempting in the hectic pace of the day-to-day to just give an answer and move on. But that doesn’t develop the skills, abilities and confidence of your team—it simply makes them more dependent upon you.
Action Question: How many questions did you ask today when team members came to you for insight?
STEP THREE. Become a Coach. Coaches know that their team members are the ones who will play the game and they will stay on the sidelines. They focus on identifying the skills needed, providing the training on those skills, and on making sure everyone know the plays. They also make sure the team members know how far they can go on their own without asking for permission, and they spend most of their time encouraging and supporting their team members.
Action Question: Are you supporting your team members, making sure they have adequate training and preparation, and encouraging them regularly?
STEP FOUR. Stop Doing, Start Delegating. Spending too much time doing things that others can do equally well or better is the Achilles heel for many leaders. We hold on to things that we like to do, things we feel we can do better than anyone else, and things we feel we don’t have time to train others to do. All of these behaviors are self-defeating in the long-term. Learn to delegate outcomes, not process, and get comfortable letting others take over things that really don’t need your attention. That will free up your time to focus on the things that really matter—things that only you can actually do.
Action Question: What are three things that you do every week (or month) that someone else could do and how quickly can you shift those things to that person? (Don’t forget to ask if they even need to be done anymore!)
STEP FIVE. Always Think About Strategy. The key to keeping yourself focused on strategic thinking is to make sure you allocate time and effort to it. Block out appointments with yourself to read things that will stimulate your thinking, take time to attend conferences and seminars, identify a few people whom you can call periodically to kick around visionary ideas—make a conscious and concerted effort to develop your strategic thinking skills and expand your knowledge base both within and outside of the credit union industry. Don’t forget to engage your board and leadership team by regularly including strategy as a topic on meeting agendas.
Action Question: What are the strategic implications of the action we are about to take, how would I improve it if I had more time, and what have I learned about strategy that applies to this situation?
Michael Hudson is founder and principal of CreditUnionStrategy.com in Rehoboth Beach, Del.