The Executive Promise

I do only what only I can do.


This is the executive promise I made to myself while running a 500+ person company. I kept the promise even when running a 5 person startup. It is the most important promise for any leader wishing to increase his or her efficiency.

It took me a long time to get to this promise. There were some baby steps along the way to learning to create effective organizations. Part of that learning was that not everyone enjoys the same work. As is typical for me, I learned this lesson by accident.

When I was starting out as a young manager, I led a department of four people. In the days before the convenience of the internet, we had to identify, source, purchase, and ship thousands of different items from all over the world. For me, the challenge and the reward of the job was spending hours playing detective, investigating the origin and source of a product, and figuring out how to get it from wherever it was to the remote humanitarian assistance program that needed it.

What I did not enjoy was writing purchase orders, invoices, shipping documents, and all the other paperwork necessary for the completion of the transaction. That was, however, a large part of our work. Being democratically disposed, I shared both the work I loved and the work I detested equally amongst the four of us.

At one of our regular weekly meetings, I happened to mention that I had a lot of “those damned order confirmations to write”. One of my staff jumped all over me, amazed that I didn’t like that part of the job. She loved it! She offered right then to trade her part of the work I loved for the work I hated. Deal!

That exchange generated a lively discussion with the whole team about which work each person liked best. The result was the creation of a simple spreadsheet matrix with our names across the top and all the tasks we had to accomplish down the vertical. Then, people simply checked the boxes under their name for the work they preferred.

The whole process took about 45 minutes, and 80% of all the tasks we had to do were apportioned to people who wanted to do them. The remaining 20% we shared amongst us, with no one needing to do too much undesirable work.

I have used this same approach for every start-up, turnaround, and restructuring I have done since. The basic process has never failed. I think there are two reasons for this. First of all, people are choosing work for which they have a personal preference. This is work that, to them, is gratifying. It is work that tells the individual that they bring value to the organization.

The second reason is that everyone is heard. We are actually seriously sharing with everyone that this is the work that needs to get done by this department. Then we are asking what part would you like to play in that? Each time I have facilitated this exercise, somewhere around that 80% number of all the tasks we have listed are voluntarily distributed.

Prior to stumbling upon this simple process, I had done what most managers feel is their duty (and right). I had sat behind my desk, drawing up very logical work flows for what seemed to me was the best way to do things. Though I still believe that my work flow was practical and logical, it did not even begin to take into account the human element of the people working with me. Most of the time, I don’t think I even asked for anyone else’s opinion. I was, after all, the manager, and it was my responsibility to get the work done.

Puzzle - team

Oh what a relief it was, when that became a shared burden and a common goal! How much resistance was overcome, and how quickly did people accept responsibility once we agreed on the scope of the work and a sequence that was arrived at through dialogue rather than edict.

It allowed me to fulfill my executive promise to do only what only I can do. As a manager, a leader, and an executive, it is my obligation to focus where I can have the greatest impact. That means that I have to keep myself from doing the jobs that I have hired others to perform.

Today, of course, we have some excellent psychometric tools to help us determine a person’s natural preferences. We have wonderful collaboration tools to keep each other informed about the progress of a project. We can quickly organize a hangout or a conference call. But I don’t think anything can ever take the place of an old-fashioned conversation about what unique contribution each of us brings to the team. Respecting that unique contribution is the highest form of motivation

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