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How CEOs can stop spinning their wheels and start making a real difference

Published in the Rochester Business Journal

We’ve all heard the “definition” of insanity: Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results. That’s why it’s always troubling to meet with a CEO who has dedicated years and long hours to building a business, only to see the company continue to struggle.

Several factors determine why one company quickly evolves from start-up to successful, profitable enterprise, while another organization languishes for years. But the most important issue may be the ways in which the CEOs and senior managers use their time.

Although many executives work long hours, few use their time as effectively as they could. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review cites that 90 percent of managers squander their time in ineffective activities. This doesn’t mean that managers are slacking off. Quite the contrary: Their days are consumed with endless meetings while putting out fire after fire. Professors Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal, authors of the HBR article, offer this sobering analysis: Only 10 percent of managers spend their time on work that has a long-term, positive impact on the business.

It’s not difficult to find a CEO or senior manager whose focus seems to have strayed from the job he or she was hired to perform. Rather than delegate or outsource routine activities, these managers waste their precious time on matters such as mediating employee disputes, answering employee questions on benefits, hammering out HR policies or micromanaging payroll issues.

Do you know a company that can afford such expensive uses of senior people’s time? When executives are so internally focused on daily issues, the organization is deprived of a senior-level focus on critical responsibilities like long-term planning, improving gross margins, maximizing profitability, nurturing customer relationships, and identifying new, high-impact products and services.

What then differentiates the 10 percent of managers who successfully achieve critical, long-term objectives? These managers possess a clarity of purpose that allows them to carefully and reflectively choose their goals. “They decide what they must achieve,” Bruch and Ghoshal write, “and then work to manage the external environment so that in the end they meet their goals.” These managers’ refusal to let other people or organizational constraints set their agenda is what sets this group apart.

The encouraging news is that, Bruch and Ghoshal conclude, organizations can create an environment in which managers grow to be more reflective, long-term-focused and balanced in their personal lives.

How might CEOs and managers move themselves into the rarefied 10 percent? For Mark Helow, founder of The CEO Project, the key trait that distinguishes the top tier of CEOs is their willingness to put learning ahead of looking good.

The Florida-based CEO Project benchmarks best practices and builds communities of CEOs who learn from one another. As part of his work with Inc. Eagles, a project of Inc. magazine, Helow has interviewed 200 CEOs of successful companies, including many Inc. 500 and Fortune 500 companies.

The findings were surprising, Helow says.

“We’ve been taught that working harder is better,” he notes. “But it’s not true. Our research has found that what work we do is more important than how many hours we spend.”

Most CEOs and managers accomplish 80 percent of their results in 20 percent of their time, Helow observes. By better directing their energy and focus, those managers can create dramatic improvements in their organizations’ economic value.

When working with CEOs, Helow asks a few questions that at first appear simplistic: As CEO, what do you get paid to do? Is your CEO effectiveness increasing, decreasing or staying the same? How do you know? Is it possible to increase your CEO skills? If so, what difference would it make in your company and your life?

Helow has devised a tool called the CEO Scorecard to help CEOs and their management teams improve their focus on high-leverage activities. Using the scorecard, CEOs commit to both annual and quarterly goals, focusing specifically on a few areas that will continue to impact the business over three years. Each member of the team develops his or her own scorecard and shares it with the group, inviting the others’ input.

Each quarter, the CEO and managers grade the scorecards from A to D, with A for “exceeded expectations” and D meaning “did not attempt.” Assigning grades puts performance measurements in concrete terms, Helow says. Managers learn to place emphasis on progress made and lessons learned.

The CEO Scorecard reminds executives to continually ask: “Will what I’m doing now matter in three years?” “How can I stop performing my current task in order to leverage up?” “What do I need to learn?”

Helow is convinced that creating a successful company involves learning certain skills, which are teachable. If learning how to be a great CEO is possible, then why doesn’t everyone do it? Because few people, no matter what they claim, truly want to learn.

The desire to engage in self-exploration is a rare trait, Helow says. For that reason, senior managers who apply the knowledge and skill gained from the CEO Scorecard will have a significant competitive advantage over their peers who do not.

Consider this: If you’ve been working long hours but have little to show for it, now may be the time to seriously examine the ways you spend your work time. Look for ways to delegate or outsource. Unless you change the way you’ve been doing things, there’s little doubt about the results you’ll get.


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HR Works, Inc., headquartered at 200 WillowBrook Office Park in Fairport (Rochester), New York, with an office in East Syracuse, is a human resource management outsourcing and consulting firm serving clients throughout the United States. HR Works provides scalable strategic human resource management and consulting services, including: affirmative action programs; benefits administration outsourcing; HRIS self-service technology; full-time, part-time and interim on-site HR managers; HR audits; legally reviewed employee handbooks and supervisor manuals; talent management and recruiting services; and training of managers and HR professionals.